Unions vow to take fight against teacher bill to top court

Ontario's Liberal government has a long fight ahead of it if legislation imposing new contracts on teachers becomes law.
Fred Hahn, the president of CUPE Ontario, says the proposed bill is beyond disturbing. (CBC)

Ontario’s Liberal government has a long fight ahead if legislation imposing new contracts on teachers becomes law, some of the province's most powerful unions are promising.

Union leaders held a press conference Thursday and outlined their take on the "Putting Students First Act," which the government intends to introduce to the recalled Ontario legislature next week.

The bill would force contracts on teachers that would rein in wages and cut benefits, which the governing Liberals say will help them eliminate a $15-billion deficit.

It would impose terms that mirror the framework agreement the government reached with English Catholic teachers, including the elimination of the banking of sick days that can be cashed out at retirement.

But union leaders say the bill strips away collective bargaining rights and erodes the rights of all public sector workers. And they are prepared to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court.

"We've reviewed the proposed legislation and I have to say that we are deeply troubled by its content, not just because of its impact on our members, which is devastating, but also because of what it says about living in a democratic country," said Sam Hammond, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.

Fred Hahn, the president of CUPE Ontario, said the bill was the product of a government that has struggled to manage other major files.

"The proposed bill is beyond disturbing," Hahn said. "It is a very affront to our democratic traditions and frankly it’s reminiscent of the legislative and accountability fiascos that the people of Ontario have suffered from this government around the G20 and the Ornge air ambulance service."

Education Minister Laurel Broten told reporters Thursday that while she did not want to speculate about a potential court case, the government was standing behind its bill.

"If there is a day when we need to defend this legislation in court, we will do that," Broten said.

No threat to school year

While the government has suggested that its legislation is designed to both prevent existing contracts from rolling over on Sept. 1 and also to prevent any labour disruption, the union leaders say the school year is not in jeopardy.

"There is no imminent threat of a strike or a lockout, nor is there any indication that school boards and unions would not be able to reach agreements if they were just allowed to do so," Hahn said.

However, Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said he couldn't guarantee there will be no work-to-rule campaign or other action in some boards.

"There are a few school boards that have followed the minister of education's advice to apply for conciliation and our job is to protect our members, so depending on how that scenario plays out something could happen," he said.

"But as of now we certainly have no plans for any labour disruption or political protest (during the school year)."

The unions say the Liberals are desperate to win a pair of upcoming byelections and are willing to use the province’s teachers in their attempt to do so.

Education Minister Laurel Broten says the government is willing to defend its proposed bill in court if need be. (CBC)

"This kind of self-interested, cynical politics is the kind that turns people off, they can see right through it," said Hahn.

Teachers are also upset by the way the government has approached their labour issues in the days leading up to September.

"This has just come so very out of the blue and so very heavy-handed that I don’t think it's realistic to expect an entire profession to just sit back and take it," said Kathreen Hansen, who teaches in Peel Region.

Liberals seek to regain majority

Since last fall, the Liberals have been living under the threat of a possible election, given their minority government status.

But two byelections are being held on Sept. 6, one in Kitchener-Waterloo and the other in Vaughan.

The Liberals hold 52 of the 107 seats in the Ontario legislature. They would need to win both of available seats in order to gain a majority.

Hammond questioned whether the ends would justify the means for the government.

"Does the quest for a majority government justify forsaking the democratic principles on which this country has been built?" Hammond asked.

"We believe that this legislation is unprincipled, undemocratic and we ask the premier and his minister: What country do you think that you are living in?"

Because of the Liberal’s minority status, they will have to get support from at least one of the opposition parties, either the Progressive Conservatives or the New Democrats.

While Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has hinted his party may see some common ground with the Liberals, it is not clear that he supports the legislation in its entirety.

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath spoke to reporters Thursday and suggested that the Tory leader and the premier are "teaming up to get a lawsuit," rather than working to resolve the outstanding labour issues.

"It should be the kids and their education that is primary, but instead, it’s the political games that the Liberals and Conservatives prefer to play," Horwath said.

With files from The Canadian Press