Yesterday, the Ontario government announced that it was revoking Bill 28 which was passed into law last Thursday. It imposed a collective agreement on about 55 000 education workers. The law would have violated the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms except the government invoked section 33 of the Charter which permits a government to pass a law that violates the Charter. Cynics will say the government backed down because the last of the seven unions who supported the government in this year’s election came out against the law on the weekend.
Not surprisingly Bill 28 galvanized the entire labour movement against the Ontario government. There were huge public protests on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and a general strike was being organized.
Usually when a government believes a strike is against the public interest it passes back to work legislation and appoints an independent arbitrator to resolve unresolved issues. Banning the right to strike and unilaterally imposing a contract on a union was unprecedented.
Bottom line: The Ontario government declared war on the Union and lost this battle.
It is important to keep in mind that the government only agreed to revoked Bill 28 on the condition the Union ended its strike/political protest. So it obtained its stated purpose: no disruption in the classroom. The parties spent all weekend at the Ontario Labour Relations Board arguing whether or not the Union’s strike/political protest was legal. Now it is unlikely the OLRB will issue a decision.
The Union says it will end the strike/political protest and its members will return to work today but reserves the right to go on strike.
My guess is the parties will return to the bargaining table but could very well reach another impass and if so the Union could very well go on strike again. In this scenario, instead of using the notwithstanding clause again I think the government will pass back to work legislation and send outstanding issues to an interest arbitrator to decide because it has repeatedly said there will be no disruption to the classroom this year. Perhaps the main issue to decide when drafting this back to work legislation is what factors the arbitrator must take into account when deciding the remaining issues – particularly wages. Will a back to work law, for example, limit the arbitrator’s discretion to increase wages? Stay tuned: about 160 000 unionized teachers are waiting to see what happens in this negotiation because their collective agreements recently expired.
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