Ontario high school teachers return to contract talks Thursday against the spectre of a controversial new provincial law that unions charge is unconstitutional.
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), said negotiations were already moving “painfully slowly” before the Progressive Conservatives passed Bill 124 last week.
That’s the legislation capping the wage settlements for hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses, professors, bureaucrats, and numerous other public service employees at one per cent annually for the next three years.
Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, architect of the measure, insisted it is “fair and time-limited approach” to help pay down the Tories’ $9 billion budget deficit.
Bethlenfalvy maintained his legislation “does not impede collective bargaining or interfere with the right to strike and would not impact existing agreements.”
Union leaders dispute that.
“It deeply undermines the collective bargaining process,” Bischof said in an interview Tuesday.
“Now we’ll have to see what happens at the bargaining table when we return Thursday,” he said.
“It really falls into the category of posturing. It’s meant to appeal some segment of their supporters to come to the table with this kind of a blunt instrument to show that they’re being tough and it’s entirely misguided.”
High school teachers are seeking a wage increase at the rate of inflation, the equivalent of about two per cent this year, but the new law dictates that one per cent is the maximum.
“We are examining a Charter challenge right now,” the OSSTF president said, pointing to previous laws, such as former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty’s Bill 115, which imposed settlements in 2012, that were found to breach the constitutional rights of union members.
“We certainly see, on the face of it, substantive interference in the bargaining process and therefore would have some of the same effects of impinging on my members’ Charter rights to freedom of association,” he said.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that these guys can make a boneheaded, short-sighted political manoeuvre and it can take us a long time to unravel it.”
But the education unions, who are all in bargaining, believe it is a worthwhile fight — similar to their four-year legal battle against Bill 115, which they finally won in 2016 even though McGuinty’s successor, Kathleen Wynne, had already repealed the law.
Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, agreed “there is no justification for passing this unconstitutional legislation.”
“The government is deliberately interfering with public sector workers’ fundamental rights, while engaging in a transparent public relations exercise meant to sow division among Ontarians,” said Stuart.
“Bill 124 will be a permanent stain on the Ford government’s record when it comes to protecting Ontarians’ rights and freedoms.”
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said the Tories’ approach is “completely unacceptable.”
“Educators are the heart of the education system that shapes the future of every student. They are highly trained professionals and deserve to be fairly compensated,” said Hammond.
Bethlenfalvy’s office noted Tuesday that “the minister may also exempt a collective agreement,” suggesting there could be exceptions to the one per cent rule in the months ahead.
Indeed, municipal employees and police, among others, are not included in Bill 124.
Asked about any looming Charter fight, the treasury board president’s office said: “Questions about a possible court challenge are speculative and premature.”
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But OSSTF’s Bischof said the very existence of the bill undermines its constitutionality.
“While Minister Bethlenfalvy claims this doesn’t interfere in bargaining, my question back to him is: ‘then, why did you pass it?’” he said.
“It can only have one purpose, which is to interfere in bargaining otherwise they’re simply wasting the time in the legislature.”