An Ontario Superior Court of Justice judge ruled last week that Bill 115, also known as the Putting Students First Act, violated the Charter rights of education workers across the province. The law has since been struck down.
Bill 115 imposed conditions on education workers and instituted timelines for reaching collective agreements, according to Ontario School Board Coordinating Committee chair Terri Preston. If a deadline was reached without an agreement, one could be imposed on the workers. The conditions workers were no longer able to bargain for included sick leave and other monetary benefits.
It was on the basis of these impositions that the court ruled in favour of the unions, and found that the provincial government had violated their Charter-granted freedom of association, which for unions includes the ability to bargain collectively.
“I think it does put governments on notice in terms of trying to interfere with unions’ collective bargaining rights in the future,” said Preston.
Since the court ruling last week struck down Bill 115, the unions involved in the Charter challenge will have to work with the provincial government to reach an acceptable remedy. If they fail to do so, the judge who ruled on the case may be involved.
The Ministry of Education did not respond to requests for comment but instead forwarded a statement, reading, in part: “Our top priority is the success and well-being of all of our students. At this time, we are reviewing the decision by Ontario Superior Court of Justice. We value the important work that teachers and education workers across the province do every day to support our students. It is important to note that we repealed the Putting Students First Act in its entirety.”
The statement went on to discuss the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act, another piece of controversial legislation that affects how education workers bargain collectively. A report from the Toronto Star in August 2014, shortly after the SBCBA was passed into law, describes its effect as “enshrin[ing] the two-tiered system of bargaining in which big-ticket items are hammered out provincially between the teachers’ unions, school board associations, and the provincial government.”
Preston’s union went into talks with the provincial government voluntarily, which was the process at the time. She says the provincial government was involved in the 2012 round of bargaining in a way it hadn’t been in 2008, when the school boards (who are the actual employers of education workers) directed bargaining. While the provincial government was engaged in several different rounds of bargaining in 2012, the only group it chose to interfere with was education workers, Preston claims.
The ministry is reviewing the SBCBA as well, according to its statement.