Union says legislation violates Charter of Rights and Freedoms
By Jake Wray, News Editor
The union representing college instructors in Ontario has begun a legal battle with the Ontario government, which recently passed legislation forcing an end to the union’s strike.
The instructors went on strike October 16 after a breakdown in contract negotiations between the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU,) which represents the instructors, and the College Employer Council (CEC,) which represents Ontario colleges. The instructors said one of their key demands in the contract negotiation was a reduction in precarious part-time employment of professors, which the CEC refused to grant. After five weeks on strike and an angry uproar from students, the Ontario government passed back-to-work legislation forcing the instructors to end their strike.
Now, the OPSEU is preparing to challenge the back-to-work legislation in court, according to a press release issued by the OPSEU on November 23.
Warren Thomas, president of the OPSEU, said in the press release that the back-to-work legislation violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He said the Supreme Court of Canada has previously protected the right to collectively bargain and the right to strike.
“In the case of the colleges, the provincial government had the power to direct the employer to make the moves necessary to bargain a settlement,” he said in the press release. “The government chose legislation instead. They trampled on the right to collective bargaining when they clearly had other choices.”
Workers do generally have the right to strike in Canada, but governments can end a strike if the striking workers perform an “essential service,” such as policing and healthcare, according to the Public Service Labour Relations Act. The act defines an essential service as anything “necessary for the safety or security of the public or a segment of the public.”
The Ontario government claims public colleges are indeed an essential service, according to the back-to-work legislation, called the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Labour Dispute Resolution Act, 2017.
“Education by Ontario’s colleges of applied arts and technology serves a critical public function,” the act says. “These programs prepare students for entry into the Ontario labour market.”
The Province initiated the back-to-work legislation November 16 shortly after the OPSEU had rejected the latest contract offer from the CEC. Prior to introducing the legislation, the government gave both parties a three-hour deadline to settle the dispute. Thomas said the government acted inappropriately after the OPSEU rejected the latest contract offer, according to the press release.
“The government never gave collective bargaining an honest chance after the contract was rejected,” he said. “That three-hour deadline was a sham designed to provide legal cover for legislation that was already a foregone conclusion. Instead of directing the colleges to settle, the government let them walk away from the table, then came back with a hammer.”
Ontario government officials have not yet commented publicly on the OPSEU’s legal challenge.