Teachers in Ontario found reason to celebrate recently.
In 2012, the Ontario Liberal government passed the “Putting Students First Act,” a bill which imposed contracts on teachers and effectively took away their right to strike.
This April, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that this act (also known as Bill 115), had violated teachers’ constitutional rights. Teachers, like other workers, are guaranteed the right to negotiate the terms of their work collectively and to have these negotiations be meaningful. Bill 115 had made this impossible.
Teachers and many other public-sector workers across the country welcomed the ruling, seeing it as a precedent which protects against current or future governments trying the same kind of legislative trick.
But is it?
This ruling may give governments pause when they next consider restricting workers’ bargaining rights. However – and I’m no lawyer – it seems that many governments are willing to risk this kind of anti-worker legislation if they think it will pay off for them politically.
The Ontario government knew its legislation was dubious on legal grounds and could eventually be struck down by the courts.* But voters didn’t seem to care much: while the case was making its way through the legal system, they still gave the Liberals a majority government in the following election.
In B.C., the BC Teachers’ Federation has been battling the provincial Liberal government in court for 14 years. In 2011 the Federation seemed to score a victory when the BC Supreme Court ruled that the government had violated teachers’ constitutional rights by stripping their contract nine years earlier – making it illegal for teachers to negotiate class size and composition.
The government acquiesced, then turned around and wrote nearly identical contract-stripping legislation the following year, forcing the union to go to court again.
Four years, two appeals and millions in legal fees later, the BCTF learned that the Supreme Court of Canada had agreed to hear its appeal on the second piece of legislation.
Oh, and the B.C. Liberals won their fourth consecutive majority in 2013.
It may well be that the BCTF is vindicated by the Supreme Court of Canada, like Ontario teachers were this spring.
But court battles alone are clearly not enough to stop slash-and-burn austerity governments. Legal proceedings are expensive, take a great deal of time and energy, and don’t always yield positive results (while the government’s treasury is theoretically limitless). As well, shrewd government lawyers can learn from decisions in other provinces and try to craft legislation which might stand up to court tests.
In order to stop constantly playing defence and make meaningful progress, unions need to figure out how better to engage and mobilize their members. Too often, only a small percentage of members are aware of union affairs (except perhaps at contract time), and an even smaller percentage are actively involved in the union. This system might work fine for day-to-day union matters like grievances and maternity leaves, but falls short when unions need to put up a coordinated fight.
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union realized this when they faced down a political regime intent on stripping their contract, firing teachers and privatizing public schools. The union began to train delegates to organize teachers in their schools for political action, and to work with committees of students and parents on common goals such as preventing school closures, improving classroom conditions and confronting systemic racism. In the summertime teacher-organizers knocked on their colleagues’ doors at home to discuss issues in the workplace.
The union also drew connections between the state’s corporate welfare schemes and its perpetual claim that education costs were too high, organizing protests at a hotel chain that received millions in government handouts while schools struggled to buy basic supplies.
As a result of this work, the teachers had gained the public’s favour by the time they went on strike in September 2012, which allowed them to succeed in protecting some important provisions of their contract by the time the week-long strike ended. The teachers were able to make clear the connection between maintaining quality education and avoiding dubious corporate education-reform schemes like merit pay. Activists in other teacher unions in places such as St. Paul, Minnesota; Seattle and Boston have since followed Chicago’s lead.
As labour journalist Nora Loreto writes, teacher unions in Ontario could use the recent court ruling as a flashpoint to organize and build capacity in their members in advance of upcoming contract negotiations.
Here in Nova Scotia, the Liberal government (I’m noticing a trend) passed Bill 148 in December, which places wage freezes and other limits on all public-sector workers, including teachers, for the next several years.
Let’s not wait to see what the courts have to say about it before we start organizing.
* Incredibly, the bill even forbade the Labour Relations Board or any arbitrator to inquire whether or not it was constitutional.