Devil is in the details: Bill 115 gives immense power to education minister

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By Liz Harvey-Foulds
Firstly I would like to congratulate the Ontario Liberal government and their highly-paid media consultants and public relations team. They have done a very impressive job of muddying the waters and confusing the media and the general public regarding the facts and the implications of Bill 115.
Forget about salaries or pensions or sick days; this is much bigger than any of these issues. The passing of Bill 115 on Sept. 11, 2012 gives the government the right to break numerous Ontario laws that have been on the books for decades. Bill 115 states unequivocally that when it contravenes other existing laws, it supersedes all such laws currently in effect in Ontario.
The Ontario Labour Relations Act gives workers in Ontario the legal right to negotiate their working conditions with their employers. Teachers are not employed by the Ontario government; we are employed by our locally- and democratically-elected school boards.
The Superior Greenstone District School Board is my employer; it hired me, pays me, and given certain conditions can fire me. There is a legal process in place by which my federation (union) representatives enter into collective bargaining with our employer (the local school board). Together they negotiate contracts which both parties agree to and which are legally binding on both the teachers and the school board. This is the law in Ontario.
The Ontario Liberal government, supported by the Conservatives, created Bill 115 which took away the ability of democratically elected school boards to negotiate collective agreements with their employees.
The government ironically called this bill “Putting Students First” and they began sending out press releases stating that teachers wanted more money and they just couldn’t afford to pay. They used fiscal restraint as an excuse for breaking existing contracts that had been legally negotiated between boards and teachers. Bill 115 gave them the right to break the Ontario Labour Laws; the minister is not accountable to Parliament for her actions and will not be subject to scrutiny by MPPs in the legislature.
I urge everyone to go on-line and read Bill 115 for yourselves; you will be astounded. When it became law it gave the Minister of Education the legal right to unilaterally impose any working conditions she chooses on a group of Ontario workers (teachers). It then states (and there are dozens of similarly draconian clauses in Bill 115), “The Ontario Labour Relations Board shall not inquire into or make a decision whether a provision of this Act is constitutionally valid or is in conflict with the Human Rights Code.”
It also states, “Terms and Conditions included in a collective agreement under or by virtue of this Act shall not be questioned or reviewed by an arbitrator, an arbitration board or the Ontario Labour Relations Board.”
The leaders in Egypt recently passed similar legislation giving power to one individual, and bypassing the democratic parliamentary process. Both the Ontario and the Egyptian governments blamed tough economic times for their undemocratic actions. In Egypt the citizens protested in the streets and fought for their democratic rights, while in Ontario the public said “damn teachers get paid enough already and they get summers off.”

When Bill 115 passed in September numerous conditions contrary to our legally negotiated contracts were immediately imposed. Minister Laurel Broten then told teachers’ bargaining units that they were free to negotiate collective agreements with their school boards. She then decreed that prior to beginning the collective bargaining process the boards and the teachers’ negotiators had to agree to accept government-imposed conditions and Bill 115. Once they had agreed to accept her conditions, Broten informed teachers they would be allowed to negotiate any “local” issues she had not concerned herself with. The teachers’ negotiators refused.
The press subsequently reported that teachers in Ontario had been given ample time to negotiate contracts with school boards but had not done so. This is more great work by government public relations experts and paid for with your tax dollars. The Minister of Education then used this “bad behaviour” as a rationale for unilaterally imposing contracts on all Ontario teachers.
Recently, Broten made the ludicrous statement that as “a sign of good faith” she would rescind Bill 115. Surely the Minister of Education is underestimating the intelligence of the media and the public. Her statement is akin to my taking out a contract on you. Imagine how you would feel if after the hit man I’d hired had broken both your legs and smashed in your face, I then assured you that I planned to rescind the contract as a sign of good faith.
This issue is not just about teachers and it is not about money; it is about the breakdown of the democratic and legal process for collective bargaining in Ontario. All workers in Ontario should be very afraid of the unilateral power that has been handed to the Minister of Education by the Liberal and Conservative members of the Ontario legislature. If they can break the Ontario labour laws when dealing with teachers, they can break virtually any of the democratic laws we live under.
Despise teachers if you must; hate unions if you have to — but I urge the citizens of Ontario to fight for your legal and democratic rights and mine. If we allow politicians and bureaucrats to ignore long-standing laws and the democratic process and to put themselves above the law, then we have only ourselves to blame for their lack of integrity, their corruption and their disregard for the rights of working people.

Liz Harvey-Foulds has been a teacher in Ontario for more than 20 years. She teaches English and Social Sciences at Nipigon-Red Rock District High School.