Ontario teachers dare government to pull the legislative trigger.
by Thomas Walkom from the Toronto Star
That Ontario elementary school teachers are threatening strike action is no surprise. The only surprise is that the decision took this long.
The reasons are straightforward. On the one hand, there is no incentive for teachers to avoid a strike.
On the other, there is a real incentive for teachers’ unions concerned about the long-run implications of this dispute to dig in their heels.
For teachers, the choice given them by the provincial Liberal government amounts to no choice at all. The government urges the unions to bargain with local school boards. But it insists that the final results must fit a template that it has already pre-ordained.
Those that don’t voluntarily agree to this template contract — which includes wage freezes for some, cutbacks that amount to wage reductions for others and the elimination of some benefits — will, under extraordinary legislation passed this fall, have it imposed on them.
The unions are being told: “Yes, we have a gun to your head. But if you wish, you can pull the trigger yourself.”
It seems the teaching unions prefer that the government’s prints alone be on the weapon.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has threatened strikes before Christmas. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has pulled out of bargaining altogether.
In effect, both are daring the government to use legislation that the Liberals, supported by Tim Hudak’s Conservatives, passed in September.
That legislation, often referred to as Bill 115, allows the government to ban teachers’ strikes as soon as they begin and impose contract settlements.
At the end, after cabinet imposes a settlement, they will be left with essentially the same wages and working conditions they would have faced had they agreed to the government’s conditions voluntarily.
But the real incentive for teachers to be obdurate has to do with their long-term interests.
In this dispute, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals are trying to finesse a 2007 Supreme Court decision that bars governments from eliminating the constitutionally protected right of public sector workers to bargain collectively.
Teachers’ unions are already challenging the constitutionality of Bill 115. The Liberals hope that, by allowing collective bargaining to take place at all, they will avoid having the law struck down.
Conversely, the more the unions collaborate in sham bargaining, the weaker their legal position will be once this case reaches the courts.
The government would be able to argue that by agreeing to negotiate and sign contracts under these conditions, the unions implicitly accepted the rules of the game set out in Bill 115.
Behind all of this is Ontario’s political reality. Rocked by scandals, under attack for their decision to shut down the legislature indefinitely, the Liberals are in such bad shape that their move from third to second place in the public opinion polls makes headlines.
Even with a new leader to replace McGuinty, the Liberals will have a hard time winning the next election — regardless of what occurs on the education front. They could be replaced as early as next year by Hudak’s adamantly anti-union Tories.
Hudak says he would freeze public-sector wages by fiat rather than fiddle around with the niceties of bargaining. He has also taken aim at public-sector pensions.
With Hudak’s Tories on the horizon, unions have to protect whatever little legal protection they now enjoy.
Refusing to play with a fixed deck may not win teachers many friends in the general public — particularly if that refusal leads to strikes. But, in the long run, acquiescing voluntarily to the terms of Bill 115 could be worse.StraightGoods.ca