This past Tuesday, the highly contentious Bill 115 passed its final readings in the Ontario legislature. It was met with the overwhelming support of 82 MPPs, with only 15 dissenting votes. Also known as the Putting Students First Act, the bill’s contents will impose number of new conditions on public school teachers: a wage freeze, a reduced number of paid sick days, an inability to collect pay for unused sick days.
But arguably the most controversial constraint is the ban on future teacher strikes, an example of blatant interference in the collective bargaining process. With the exception of essential services workers, such as those in healthcare, police, and fire, all public service employees possess the right to unionize and strike, after a given set of conditions has been met.
Nobody wants a strike, regardless of the public sector at hand. For teachers, a strike means days spent picketing outside the provincial Parliament buildings while overlooking their chosen profession. For students, it means an interruption to their education. But it’s a step that gives employees a legal voice that can’t be ignored when all other possibilities have been exhausted when attempting to reach contract agreements, including conciliation from a third party and a mandatory period for negotiations. It’s an unwelcome but necessary measure, and governments have their own equivalent, the lockout. By removing it as a possibility, employees are susceptible to having unreasonable terms of employment imposed onto them.
Over the past several days, elementary and secondary school teachers alike have been expressing their opposition to the passing of the bill through various means. High school teachers participated in a day of protest on Wednesday, during which teachers were encouraged to withdraw from extra-curricular activities and wear black clothing. Elementary school teachers have been advised by their union to halt their involvement in extracurricular activities weekly as part of “McGuinty Mondays”: aptly named days where no teachers will attend school-based meetings.
Several members of the Marc Garneau faculty gave their opinions on this draconian bill.
“Looking at the financial position that Ontario finds itself in, I understand the wage freeze,” said Mr. Mirza, a Grade 12 finance teacher. “As a group of teachers, we all understand it. What bothers me the most is that they aren’t practicing democracy when they legislate. It’s not the wage freeze that bothers me; it’s the way it was done.”
“The government came out and said, this is what we want. The unions agreed to talk, but the government simply legislated within 30 days of their original proposal instead of carrying out proper negotiations.”
Another Garneau teacher, who preferred to remain anonymous, expressed other concerns.
“As teachers, we accepted months ago that our salaries would be frozen, and that was extremely unclear in the media. [The wage freeze] is not the issue. The issue is the fact that our medical days are halved and banked days can’t be carried over.”
As long as the provincial government maintains its unwillingness to negotiate democratically and honour teachers’ collective bargaining rights, students and parents alike will experience the repercussions. In many elementary schools, curriculum nights and athletic activities have been put to a halt, affecting integral parts of the students’ experiences.
As one junior high teacher puts it, “The bill is called ‘Putting Students First’ but it seems that in this political scuffle that the students are the ones who lose out. Then again, some teachers lose out too. If running clubs or teams is one’s passion, how is stopping them going to help us? Teachers lose out on doing something they love; students lose out on something they love to do.”