B.C. teachers' right to strike: Bill 22 violates rights of workers and rule of law

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The B.C. Liberal government is poised, once again, to violate the legal rights of workers, this time with Bill 22, which, if it becomes law, will prohibit teachers from striking and limit their collective bargaining rights.

In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the government had violated the Canadian Charter by imposing legislative restrictions on the rights of health workers to bargain collectively. In April 2011, the British Columbia Supreme Court followed that decision to rule that legislation concerning teachers was unconstitutional, and thereby invalid, because it prohibited bargaining on class size, class composition and the ratios of teachers to students.

It is those very same restrictions that the government now seeks to reinstate with Bill 22, a disturbing disregard for such a recent judicial declaration that they are constitutionally invalid.

Bill 22 also flies in the face of Canada's international treaty obligations. On no fewer than 10 occasions -- half of which concerned teachers -- the Freedom of Association Committee of the United Nations International Labour Organization has found the B.C. Liberal government to be in breach of labour treaties. In a recent report, concerning legislation similar to Bill 22, the committee noted as particularly problematic the tendency of this government to legislatively prohibit strikes, impose rates and working conditions, circumscribe the scope of collective bargaining, and restructure the bargaining process.

The proposed Bill 22 does all of those things and more. As such, it almost certainly violates international law as well as constitutional law.

Governments are obliged to govern according to law. That is what distinguishes democracies from tyrannies. As a fundamental democratic principle, the rule of law is seriously jeopardized when governments play fast and loose with constitutional and international laws, as this government is now doing with Bill 22.

If Bill 22 becomes law, the government will demand that teachers respect its provisions (including those making strikes illegal). It will condemn those who defy the act as lawbreakers and punish them with severe fines ($475 per day for a teacher; $2,500 per day for a union officer; $1.3 million per day for the BCTF).

In short, the government will demand that the rule of its law be respected, while, at the same time, its actions dangerously encroach upon the rule of law.

Joel Bakan teaches in the faculty of law at the University of British Columbia. This article was first published in The Vancouver Sun.

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