Editorial: Sledgehammer approach bad precedent

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce tabled legislation Monday afternoon to preemptively end an education strike that has not yet occurred. Education unions in Ontario have been without a contract since August 2022 and through months of negotiation, little progress has been made to hammer out a deal.

The Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which is part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and represents about 55,000 non-teaching school employees including educational assistants, office personnel and custodians, notified the province of strike action if no deal is reached by November 4.

The union asked for an 11 per cent wage increase citing inflation and that OSBCU members are among the lowest-paid employees in the public school system. The province’s last offer is an increase of 2.5 per cent for workers making under $43,000 per year, and 1.5 per cent for those making over that amount. The preemptive strike banning legislation will impose a four year contract on OSBCU members. It is not the first time a provincial government imposed a labour contract on the education sector. Premier Dalton McGuinty did so in 2012, but was taken to court by the unions. The courts ruled that the government violated employees rights to collective bargaining and millions in compensation was paid.

In his legislation, Lecce evoked Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, also known as the Notwithstanding clause. This allows provinces to temporarily override sections of the Charter dealing with fundamental freedoms, legal rights, and equality rights, for five years. Lecce using the Notwithstanding Clause is akin to using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. It sets a bad precedence for labour contracts going forward. Left unchallenged, provincial governments do not have to negotiate with any union or non-union employee. The Notwithstanding clause is for five years, and labour agreements are normally four years long. The message is clear for anyone dealing with the Ford government: just do what you are told, take whatever terms and pay the government will give you – end of discussion.

Nobody wants education disruptions – especially with the past two years of pandemic disruptions families have endured. But refusing to negotiate a fair settlement and imposing a contract in this manner will do more harm than good. We are in a climate where employers are already struggling to hire and retain employees. Many public services outside of education are struggling to maintain staffing. This precedent will only exacerbate the situation.

Editor’s Note – This editorial was corrected from the November 2 print edition of The Leader to correct the term “back-to-work” to “strike banning” to better reflect the wording of Ontario’s “Keeping Students in Schools Act” legislation.

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