Ontario public school teachers have launched a court action Thursday to challenge the Liberal government's legislation that imposes a contract and takes away their right to strike for two years. The local union said Hamilton's high school teachers are still upset with the new bill.
Ken Coran, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the education sector is willing to fight the government’s legislation, which they view as the start of a larger effort to push back the rights of workers.
"Let’s be very clear: Bill 115 appears to be the beginning of a greater agenda to erode the rights of hardworking Ontarians," Coran said during a Thursday afternoon news conference.
The OSSTF, along with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union are "each filing a court challenge against the Ontario government," Coran said.
"We're feeling the effects in schools," said Chantal Mancini, chair of the local bargaining unit for the OSSTF. "Teachers are doing their best under a cloud."
Mancini said teachers in Hamilton are unsure about the future and what will happen to their ability to exercise their rights. The unions say Bill 115 strips teachers of the right to bargain collectively and sets a dangerous precedent for similar legislation being proposed for the broader public sector.
ETFO president Sam Hammond said the government imposed its legislation before unions had a chance to bargain "in a meaningful way with local school boards," a decision which has pushed the Liberals into a conflict with his members.
"We have said from the outset that Bill 115 is draconian legislation," Hammond said Thursday afternoon. "It goes far beyond any wage restraint or back-to-work legislation ever enacted in Ontario."
The unions also believe that Bill 115 violates the charter rights of its members.
On Thursday, Premier Dalton McGuinty defended the bill that will impose contracts on teachers and take away their right to strike for two years, while admitting that a newly filed legal challenge from teachers’ unions was not unexpected.
"It’s not a surprise that the teachers are pursuing this particular path," McGuinty told reporters in Vaughan, Ont. "We have a tremendous amount of confidence in the position that we have taken, and the law that we have adopted here in Ontario through working in concert with the opposition in the legislature."
Education Minister Laurel Broten said the government is confident the legislation is constitutional.
"Legal opinions we have read show otherwise," Mancini said, adding that the Ontario Civil Liberties Association is supporting the teachers' union.
Broten said the Liberals ensured they did not violate the right to collective bargaining by allowing the teachers' unions to negotiate deals before it passed the legislation.
Mancini said the city is behind our teachers.
"Hamilton is a labour town," Mancini said. "We're getting strong support from folks in the community."
Unions representing teachers at Catholic and Francophone schools in Ontario did accept the government's original offer, which still allows younger teachers to move up the salary grid.
The New Democrats predict the wage freeze bill will be struck down by the courts and will cost Ontario taxpayers more in the long run.
The Progressive Conservatives supported the minority Liberal government's bill to impose a contract on teachers last month, but complained it didn't go far enough.
The Liberals recently unveiled proposed legislation to freeze the wages of 481,000 workers at hospitals, colleges, provincial agencies and the civil service. Mancini said education workers are just the first to take on the fight to protect rights.
"As the message gets out and more and more students and parents understand that it's not about a wage increase, it's protecting our rights," she said, "that support will grow."
The Tories said they can't vote for the bill because it exempts too many workers such as police and firefighters who are employed by municipalities, while the NDP say it is unconstitutional and will not survive a court challenge.
The government says it needs a two-year wage freeze from more than 1.2 million public sector workers so it can trim a $14.8-billion deficit without laying off staff or cutting services.