School boards, superintendents and principals should prepare for the potential for labour unrest given the current political climate in Ontario. A work-to-rule campaign is one strategy often employed by unions representing elementary and secondary school teachers and support staff to exert political pressure or gain leverage during collective bargaining.
Work-to-rule can constitute an illegal strike where there is a concerted, collective activity that interferes with normal or long-standing activities. Work-to-rule campaigns take many forms, but examples of prior actions by unions include: refusing to complete report card comments or parent-teacher interviews or to attend staff meetings; failing to respond to e-mail or phone communications from administrators or to update classroom websites or newsletters; or mass sick leave claims.
Withdrawal from participation in extracurricular activities is also a form of work-to-rule that often receives significant media attention and concern from students and parents. In Trillium Lakelands District School Board v ETFO, the Ontario Labour Relations Board held that an organized withdrawal from participation in extracurricular activities by elementary teachers constituted an unlawful strike. It was irrelevant that the extracurricular activities were unpaid as the withdrawal constituted a collective activity that interfered with the school board’s normal and long-standing activities.
There are various options in response to an unlawful work-to-rule, including discipline of employees for insubordination, a management grievance or an application to the Ontario Labour Relations Board asserting an unlawful strike. The Ontario Labour Relations Board has broad powers, including declaring the work-to-rule activities unlawful and directing the union to cease and desist the unlawful conduct.
Proactive planning and preparation by school administrators will ensure school boards are in the best position to respond quickly and appropriately to work-to-rule. We recommend that school boards:
- Prepare a detailed summary of all job duties performed by employees, including extracurricular activities;
- Proactively review union communications to members to identify and respond to planned tactics, such as specific work-to rule activities;
- Monitor for “pink” letters from unions to their members mandating specific conduct;
- Monitor your teachers and employees for vacation/leave requests or sick day usage and consider any patterns, such as all employees in a specific department calling in sick; and
- Ensure you notify the union executive of the unlawful activity and appropriately discipline employees to avoid any assertion by the union that the illegal activity was condoned.
Engaging in the above steps will ensure school boards are in the best position to respond proactively to work-to-rule campaigns to minimize the negative impact on students and to commence legal proceedings quickly, if necessary to stop the unlawful activities.