Ontario teachers and the law

[Editor’s Note: this article has been slightly revised to reflect OSSTF’s decision to cancel its January 16 protest.]

by Doug Nesbitt

Picket line at Truedell Public School, Kingston, Ontario. December 20 2012.
Picket line at Truedell Public School, Kingston, Ontario. December 20 2012.

At 4am this morning, the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled that a “political protest” by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario would be an unlawful action. ETFO leaders promptly called off the protest and has told its members to go to work. ETFO had framed their walkout as a legal political protest to avoid such a ruling. By early afternoon, OSSTF announced it would not hold its planned January 16 walkout. Despite the likelihood of Bill 115 being tossed out in a court challenge as a violation of Charter Rights, civil disobedience against Bill 115 and the OLRB ruling appears unlikely.

Today’s events are the latest chapter in a lengthy months-long struggle by ETFO and OSSTF against Bill 115, a draconian anti-democratic bill which gives the Ontario cabinet unprecedented powers without any legislative oversight. The Bill also bars the affected unions from seeking any recourse against any aspect of Bill 115 through the OLRB or by appealing to the Ontario Human Rights Code. The government’s use of the OLRB to declare this latest job action illegal is further evidence of the absurdities emerging from the authoritarian nature of Bill 115.

The two planned walkouts were announced after Minister of Education Laurel Broten unilaterally imposed contracts through the powers provided in Bill 115. Deliberately calling them “collective agreements” despite their unilateral imposition, Broten had the nerve to declare that once the contracts were in place, Bill 115 would be taken off the books. This has merely added to the obscenity of the Liberal government’s actions.

While a number of ETFO members have protested outside their schools this morning, there is no evidence yet of full-scale walkouts. Other than a January 26 protest in Toronto against the Ontario Liberal Party convention, there appears no future actions endorsed by the teachers unions.

While ETFO and OSSTF job action other than work-to-rule appears to be screeching to a halt, the court challenge against Bill 115 will continue. As has been pointed out before, this challenge could take many years. In such circumstances, Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation “justice too long delayed is justice denied” rings true. BC teachers affected by anti-democratic Liberal legislation in 2002 had to wait eight years until the legislation itself was thrown out by the courts only to have the government return with similar anti-union legislation against teachers in March 2012.

In such circumstances, the two-week illegal Ontario teachers strike of 1997 looms large in offering a series of important lessons about teachers strikes, the courts and the law. Rankandfile.ca directs its readers to this well-written, highly-readable article by former long-time Osgoode Hall law professor Harry Glasbeek who examined how Ontario’s teachers succeeded in the courts against attempts by the Tory government of Premier Mike Harris to have the illegal strike stopped by injunctions. Glasbeek draws two very important conclusions that are particularly relevant today:

  1. The legal victory by teachers against Harris’s attempt at injunctions was limited and highly influenced by specific circumstances and events.
  2. “the architecture of the law does not lend itself to building a movement for political action by workers and their unions”


Class War: Ontario Teachers and the Courts
Harry J. Glasbeek
Osgood Hall Law Journal, Vol.37, No.4 (1999)
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