Education unions launch Charter challenge against province

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TORONTO—On December 12, four of the unions representing teachers and education workers across Ontario’s publicly funded education systems filed court challenges of the provincial government’s Bill 124, the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act.

“The four affiliates have challenged the government on the legality of Bill 124,” said Eric Laberge, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation’s Rainbow local. “They are limiting our members ability to collectively bargain wages,” he said, noting each has its own separate challenge.

The Association des enseignantes et des franco-ontariens (AEFO), the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) claim that the legislation violates the teachers’ and education workers’ constitutional rights to engage in unrestricted collective bargaining activity, which is guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Given the content and timing of the legislation, being in the midst of negotiations for the renewal of collective agreements in the education sector, the unions contend that Bill 124 is a direct attack on free collective bargaining in the education sector and a violation of sections 2(b) and 2(d) of the Charter, which guarantee freedom of expression and the freedom of association. In addition, the legislation violates the duty of the Crown to bargain in good faith.

“The Charter exists to protect the rights of Canadians, even when those rights are not convenient for governments,” said AEFO President Remi Sabourin. “That is the backbone of our democracy.”

“Bill 124 violates the democratic rights of all workers in Ontario’s public sector,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond. “No employer should be  permitted to undermine employees’ fundamental rights without facing the strongest possible challenge. The Ford government should recognize these rights and repeal Bill 124 immediately.”

“Given the timing of Bill 124, and the haste to get it passed into law, it is clear that (the bill) targets teachers and education workers,” said OECTA President Liz Stuart. “This legislation effectively ties the hands of both the employer and employee representatives who are currently negotiating collective agreements. This is unacceptable and in our view it is unconstitutional.”

“Governments should not lightly infringe on the civil rights of their citizens,” said OSSTF/FEESO President Harvey Bischof. “They should rely on tried and tested bargaining processes that lead both parties to creativity in the process and stability thereafter. There is no current economic or fiscal crisis that requires such an extraordinary interference in that process.”

“The four (unions) are bringing the challenge forward for every other public sector in the province to consider,” said Mr. Laberge. “Locally we will continue with limited service withdrawal. A full withdrawal of services is not on the immediate horizon.”

On Tuesday, the Ontario Federation of Labour OFL), Canadian Union of Public Employees, Service Employees International Union and United Steelworkers held a press conference to announce their joint Charter challenge to Bill 124. The OFL also announced the launch of a campaign to repeal Bill 124, which includes escalating actions in response to the legislation which undermines the free and fair collective bargaining rights of all workers enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.