Unions consider legal action against province for ‘shameful’ new bill

Queen's Park Toronto (BlackburnNews.com file photo by Sue Storr)

Unions across Ontario are condemning the passage of new legislation that will force workers to accept contracts that don’t keep pace with inflation, which could infringe on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), which represents 54 unions and one million workers in the province, said it is actively reviewing all options, including legal action, against Bill 124, the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, after it was passed by the provincial PC government on Thursday.

The act will allow the government to impose salary and compensation caps for unionized and non-unionized public sector employees, including caps on pension and health care improvements. The OFL asserts that the bill will strip public sector workers of their constitutional rights to free and fair collective bargaining.

“Bill 124 is a direct attack on the collective bargaining rights of every worker in the province,” said Ontario Federation of Labour President Chris Buckley. “Now that the bill has passed, I cannot imagine a scenario that does not result in a charter challenge.

“The agreements unions bargain on behalf of their members must be negotiated at the bargaining table, not in the legislature.”

CUPE Ontario, which represents around 280,000 unionized workers, called the bill “shameful.”

“Bill 124 is based on the belief that frontline worker wages are the problem. Wages are not the cause of Ontario’s deficit. Bill 124 is unnecessary, unfair, it violates the Charter and most importantly, it makes life more difficult for hundreds of thousands of hardworking people and their families,” CUPE Ontario said in a statement. “This assault on hard-working people cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. CUPE Ontario will work with other unions to build resistance against cuts in communities across the province and challenge this unfair bill in the courts.”

Four Ontario unions that represent teachers and education workers in Ontario also strongly condemned the passage of Bill 124. The Association des enseignantes et enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) issued a joint statement Thursday evening and said the legislation ” tramples on collective bargaining rights.”

All four educator unions are currently in negotiations with the government for new collective agreements, and said they are preparing a court challenge to the legislation, which “likely violates the Charter rights of their members.” The unions said good faith bargaining is very unlikely to take place now that Bill 124 has been passed.

“They’ve completely undermined the bargaining process at precisely the moment when educators, parents, and students are most counting on that process to work as it was intended,” OSSTF/FEESO President Harvey Bischof.

The passage of Bill 124 also comes just one day after the province released its Fall Economic Statement, which touted a thriving economy and that the government is ahead of its deficit-reduction target by $1.3 billion.

Despite numerous unions stating the opposite, the province said the bill respects the collective bargaining process and does not impose wage freezes or wage rollbacks.

“Ontario’s public sector employees will still be able to receive salary increases for seniority, performance, or increased qualifications as they do currently,” the province said in a statement. “The legislation does not impact existing collective agreements. It sets out reasonable and time-limited requirements on new compensation increases for unionized and non-unionized employees in Ontario’s public sector.”

The provincial government added that public sector compensation in Ontario costs over $72 billion annually, which is roughly half of all government expenditures.

Bill 124, the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, applies to over one million workers across the provincial public sector.