An Eye on Collective Bargaining and the Taxpayer, Part II: Back to School?

August 27, 2012 | André R. Nowakowski

On March 13, 2012, we took a look the various pressures facing government spending and how deficit/debt cutting could impact broader public sector employees. And the taxpayer, of course. As a refresher, some of the public sector “wage” issues that we reviewed included: a freeze on non-union public sector compensation in Ontario; a wage freeze for MPPs in Ontario; collective bargaining in the City of Toronto, and federal government intervention in labour disputes in the federal sector, notably Air Canada. Since then, we have seen legislation enacted in Ontario that generally freezes the compensation of certain, designated broader public sector executives for at least as long as there continues to be a provincial deficit.

Now, as summer winds down (sorry!), tensions are heating up in Ontario between the provincial government, school boards, teachers, teacher unions and, possibly, children and parents.

In an effort to manage its deficit, the Ontario Government entered into a “framework” agreement with one of the provincial teachers’ unions in Ontario. Among other things, the agreement will freeze teacher’s wages for a period of time. That was easy, right? Not so fast it seems. The goal was that school boards and other teachers unions would follow the framework agreement. Part of the difficulty is that school boards associations and provincial unions in Ontario have informal discussions on consent, but school boards also bargain individually with the respective union(s) to agree on a collective agreement. So far, only a few school boards have agreed to adopt the government’s agreement with the union. Another part of the difficulty, and perhaps the bigger part, is that two of the provincial teachers unions are adamantly opposed to the framework agreement. With collective agreements set to expire before the school year starts, the framework agreement appears to be in jeopardy. However, the government is not backing down. It has recalled the provincial legislature to sit the week of August 27 so that the Ontario Government can introduce the Putting Students First Act, 2012 and have the legislation passed. The legislation would enforce the terms of the framework agreement and prohibit a strike or lockout. At the time of writing, it appears that the legislation will have the support of the Progressive Conservative opposition to ensure passage.

So, we have a government that is resorting to legislation to freeze wages in an effort to tighten the fiscal belt and manage the deficit. Overriding the collective bargaining relationship of employers and unions to impose terms on the workplace relationship is, of course, not without controversy. Two of the provincial teachers’ unions in Ontario have indicated that they will challenge the validity of the legislation. There has also been an indication that there will be a day of protest by one of the teachers’ unions if the legislation passes. It appears that the fight is far from over.

The inability to have all the parties follow the Ontario Government’s framework highlights the difficulty in finding a “one size fits all” solution. Further, union opposition to the framework agreement and pending legislation highlights the difficulty with legislating a solution. And it leaves us with the questions: who will pay for the solution(s) and what will be the cost?

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