Ontario Education Negotiations

Ongoing Attempts to Eliminate the Right to Strike in K-12 Education in Ontario

– Enver Villamizar –

As the school year begins, of immediate importance to workers across the country are the attempts of the Ontario Ford government to pressure education unions to give up their right to strike. Instead, they are to submit to a process of binding interest arbitration in which an arbitrator will decide all matters which cannot be sorted out through what is called good faith negotiations, which no longer exist.

Teachers and education workers in Ontario have been without a contract since August 31, 2022. Only education workers represented by CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) have been able to come to agreements acceptable to them after a determined fight with the Ford government over their right to strike.

At least one union, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), is now taking the prospect of binding interest arbitration to its members for a vote to decide if this is an acceptable way to go. This follows an announcement from OSSTF that it would hold strike votes in September if the government refused to negotiate. Meetings for members to discuss OSSTF's proposal for binding arbitration will be held during the month of September. Meanwhile the other education unions continue negotiations, with the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) applying for conciliation.

Binding interest arbitration as a method of resolving conflict with the government has repercussions. It is being presented as a legitimate method to establish contracts before any strike action has even taken place, and in fact as a replacement for workers exercising their right to strike. Arbitration has been put forward by unions in the past as a way to resolve disputes with governments. BC teachers, for example, did so in 2014 after a prolonged strike in which the workers were able to mobilize public opinion behind their demands.

Some are now claiming that getting a good arbitrator who is generally seen as not anti-union will favour the workers in a situation where the government refuses to negotiate. In this way workers are being encouraged to rely on the existing labour relations regime and an arbitrator who is called neutral, to determine their wages and working conditions. This is happening at a time when to date the government has refused to negotiate, and is making significant changes to educators' working conditions through legislation.

This attempt by the Ford government to prevent strike actions instead of bargaining comes after it tried in vain to impose a contract on 55,000 CUPE OSBCU education workers in November 2022, using the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to criminalize the workers' planned strike action. But when the education workers refused to submit and went out on a province-wide protest, earning the support of virtually the entire trade union movement, the Ford government was forced to back down.

CUPE OSBCU education workers picket Queens Park during political action day, November 4, 2022, defying Ford government's attempt to impose a contract.

However, it has refused to back down on its dictate that there be no strikes of teachers and education workers and is now insisting on the use of binding interest arbitration as the means to do this.

A situation is being created in which the government is trying to force unions to rely on the state to resolve differences with the government rather than on their own members and other working people who support their just cause. The issue is not pro or con binding interest arbitration, but rather who should decide their conditions of work: the state, or workers through their unions and their own actions. If governments refuse to negotiate, can the state be relied upon to affirm the rights of workers?

The experience of the working class in this period is that such measures are taken in a stepwise manner by neo-liberal governments to eliminate the right of workers to a say over their wages and working conditions. This is especially the case in the provision of provincial and national social programs such as education and health care. This takes place at the same time that billions of dollars are removed from these programs and diverted into self-serving schemes.

Ever since the McGuinty Liberal government used Bill 115 in 2012 to try to impose contracts in K-12 education in Ontario, every successive government has taken measures to try to limit – and now to eliminate – the right of teachers and education workers to strike on a local or provincial level.

First, provincial bargaining was imposed as a formal process without negotiation with the unions and school boards, with the promise that local bargaining would be preserved and that only big items such as salary and benefits would be dealt with centrally.

Then the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled that any matter in negotiations which involved any amount of money was basically removed from local negotiations and made a central matter if both government and provincial union could not agree where it would be dealt with. This meant the government could veto anything going local.

Rally January 26, 2013, against McGuinty government's attempt to impose contracts on teachers
under Bill 115.

Subsequently, a local strike of high school teachers was outlawed by the Labour Board on the basis that it was "tainted" by central demands and not really a local strike, meaning the strike was made illegal.

Now, the Ford government is hoping to set a precedent that will further eliminate the say of teachers and education workers over their working conditions, which are in fact students' learning conditions, with the pressure to use binding interest arbitration. It is holding out the possibility of an arbitrator awarding significant pay raises to support recruitment and retention of staff, along with a lump sum payment to remedy Bill 124, which capped public sector compensation at one per cent for four years and which has been declared unconstitutional.

Governments across Canada are watching what is taking place to see if they too can use such mechanisms to eliminate the right to strike. The challenge facing teachers and education workers and other workers who face the same demand in Ontario on this Labour Day is to argue out what favours them under the circumstances and how to prevent attempts to divide their ranks – pro or con – from stopping discussion. By openly discussing what to do and what will favour them and education in general, teachers and education workers can find a way forward.

This article was published in
Volume 53 Number 8 - August 2023

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