Ontario teachers' labour dispute may be beginning of broader battle across public service

| January 15, 2013
Photo: Mick Sweetman / flickr

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The ongoing labour crisis in Ontario's public schools may just be a prelude to a much broader battle about to unfold between the government and all public sector workers in the province.

As it stands, teachers are at an impasse in their face-off with the Liberal government of soon-to-be-retired Premier Dalton McGuinty. After Education Minister Laurel Broten used the controversial Bill 115 on January 3 to impose a contract on the province's 126,000 teachers and education workers who had yet to reach agreements with their school boards, teachers' unions were outraged and warned this would not be the end of the bitter dispute. 

The elementary school teachers' union announced a one-day walkout protest for January 11. High school teachers put the province on notice that they would not be resuming extracurricular activities (which fall outside their contractual duties), and would stage their own one-day walkout on January 16. 

The walkouts were cancelled following an eleventh-hour ruling from the province's labour relations board that they would be unlawful, but the fight is not over. The high school teacher's union has hinted their members may well end up boycotting extracurricular activities through the full two-year duration of the imposed contract.

The unions have also been picketing Liberal leadership debates and seeking assurances from all candidates that they will reverse the imposed contract and reinstate teachers' right to bargain. On January 26th, they plan to join other labour and social rights groups for a massive protest rally outside the Liberal convention in Toronto. 

And, of course, the unions' legal challenge of Bill 115 continues. They're arguing that the law, in giving the government power to cut off collective bargaining process and unilaterally impose contract terms, violates the Charter-protected right to free association. 

Bill 115 for entire public service waiting in the wings

 Ontario may see the same fight that's unfolded between teachers and the government playing itself out across the province's entire public sector should another aspiring piece of legislation, the "Protecting Public Services Act," become law. 

The Liberals released a draft of the legislation in September, prior to Premier McGuinty's resignation and prorogue of the legislature. It has not yet been introduced as a bill. It is very much like Bill 115, applied to public-sector workers across the board, with the exception of firefighters, police officers and municipal workers. It would impact nearly half a million workers -- public servants as well as employees of universities and colleges, hospitals, boards of health, long-term care homes and other government-funded organizations. 

Like Bill 115, it would impose a two-year freeze on salary increases. It would also, as summed up in an analysis by law firm Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP "allow the responsible Minister to veto a collective agreement, override any collective agreement provision... impose any collective agreement provision... [and] dictate the outcome of collective bargaining even before negotiations have actually begun." 

And, like Bill 115, it would empower the government to ban strikes and curtail the ability of the Ontario Labour Relations Board and the courts to review any decisions made by the government under the new law.

Alternately, Tim Hudak's plan for unionized workers...

Should Ontario's labour movement express its disgust with the Liberal government for the Bill 115 fiasco at the polls in the next election by voting NDP, the New Democrats -- currently polling higher than the Liberals, with approval rates they haven't seen since the 1990s -- might have a shot at forming a minority government. 

Alternately, the next election could deliver a win for the Conservative Party, whose leader Tim Hudak has been peddling an aggressive vision for "prosperity" that would make Bill 115 look like a Christmas present to unionized workers. He proposes to:

- Pass legislation that would not only curtail public workers' collective bargaining powers in negotiating future contracts, but would rip up existing collective agreements

- Introduce "right-to-work" laws in Ontario, which would allow employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues (despite benefiting from the collective agreements negotiated by the unions)

- "Amend legislation so that unions must provide full and transparent disclosure of their revenues and how they spend their funds" (a level of disclosure that would be as outlandishly detailed and invasive as that required by the federal Conservatives' Bill C-377, perchance?) 

- Opening up tendering for contracts in municipal and broader public services to non-union bidders 

It's not about the money

The government's messaging on Bill 115 and the dispute with teachers has been very consistent: it's about money. Ontario faces a $14.8 billion deficit and a slow economy, and the government can't balance its books without either keeping its employment costs in education from growing, or cutting services. No one wants to see service levels drop, so teachers must be prepared to forego raises during this difficult economic time.

But if you look at the statements from unions and teachers on why they are so incensed about Bill 115, it seems pretty clear that for them, it's not about the money. It's about the process. 

What they're outraged about is that the government has granted itself, and now made use of, the power to cut off collective bargaining between teachers and their employers, the local school boards. That flies in the face of how job contracts for unionized workers have been determined in the province for decades. They see collective bargaining, a process by which workers participate in negotiating the terms of their work, as a fundamental right, hard-won by generations of union activists -- and now under attack.     

Much of the mainstream media, predictably, has failed or refused to grasp this, focusing on the two-year wage freeze as the central subject of the battle. Readers of the Toronto Sun and the like end up with a distorted image of teachers insisting they are entitled to skyrocketing salaries no matter what, even as government services groan under the weight of a crushing deficit and workers in every other sector face cuts and stagnation. 

But the teachers aren't challenging the idea that the province should keeping employment costs in the education sector from rising in the face of a daunting deficit. 

For instance, the high school teachers' union in November pitched to the government an offer that would allow for the province to meet its budget goals without suspending collective bargaining -- to let the union take over teachers' benefits plans from the school boards.

And they aren't insisting on raises either. Self-described "dissident teacher" and blogger David Chiarelli wrote recently on his blog

I will never understand why the ministry had to set some very arbitrary MOU terms and then play hardball with us. If she had first set the budget limitations and then asked us what we could do together to creatively work out a plan with the Ministry, might we not have been able to reach the same goals in a more mutually acceptable manner? Is that a pipe dream?

A pay freeze may have been hard to sell to our members but I think it could have been accepted if the other ways of seeking savings could've been resolved better without going after the grid teachers, our sick days and gratuities. A lot of great alternatives have been forwarded by the affiliates and been shot down because they did not work specifically within the rigidly preset terms.

I have a hunch that those thoughts are shared by many teachers and education workers.

The big challenge for teachers and Ontario's labour movement now, I believe, is to clearly drive home this message as their public campaign against Bill 115 continues: it's not about the money, it's about the process. They need to be as repetitive and unwavering with that message as the government has been with its refrain that it had no choice but to use Bill 115 to balance the books.

 

Lori Theresa Waller is rabble.ca's labour reporter. 

Photo: Mick Sweetman / flickr  

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