Ontario’s governing Liberals remain confident that controversial legislation aimed at containing education spending will stand up in court, despite suggestions from critics that it was a costly mistake to bring forward.
On Thursday, Premier Dalton McGuinty defended the bill that will impose contracts on teachers and take away their right to strike for two years, while admitting that a newly filed legal challenge from teachers’ unions was not unexpected.
"It’s not a surprise that the teachers are pursuing this particular path," McGuinty told reporters in Vaughan, Ont.
"We have a tremendous amount of confidence in the position that we have taken, and the law that we have adopted here in Ontario through working in concert with the opposition in the legislature."
Union leaders representing tens of thousands of public-sector teachers and support staff unveiled the details of their legal fight against the legislation Thursday, laying out a collision course with the government that could go all the way to the country’s top court.
Ken Coran, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the education sector is willing to fight the government’s legislation, which they view as the start of a larger effort to push back the rights of workers.
"Let’s be very clear: Bill 115 appears to be the beginning of a greater agenda to erode the rights of hardworking Ontarians," Coran said during a Thursday afternoon news conference.
The OSSTF, along with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union are “each filing a court challenge against the Ontario government,” Coran said.
ETFO president Sam Hammond said the government imposed its legislation before unions had a chance to bargain “in a meaningful way with local school boards,” a decision which has pushed the Liberals into a conflict with his members.
"We have said from the outset that Bill 115 is draconian legislation," Hammond said Thursday afternoon.
"It goes far beyond any wage restraint or back-to-work legislation ever enacted in Ontario."
The unions also believe that Bill 115 violates the charter rights of its members.
But Education Minister Laurel Broten says the government is confident the legislation is constitutional.
Broten says the Liberals ensured they did not violate the right to collective bargaining by allowing the teachers' unions to negotiate deals before it passed the legislation.
Unions representing teachers at Catholic and Francophone schools in Ontario did accept the government's original offer, which still allows younger teachers to move up the salary grid.
The New Democrats predict the wage freeze bill will be struck down by the courts and will cost Ontario taxpayers more in the long run.
"I think the worrisome thing is that in a couple of years time, we’re going to get a big bill in the mail when the Supreme Court throws out this legislation," New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said Thursday, citing the back pay and legal costs she predicts the taxpayers will be forced to pay out.
The Progressive Conservatives supported the minority Liberal government's bill to impose a contract on teachers last month, but complained it didn't go far enough.
That support for the Liberals’ legislation has drawn the ire of the unions representing the teachers, which Coran alluded to in the Thursday news conference.
"McGuinty and Hudak have chosen to defy the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we have chosen to defend it," Coran said, linking the premier and the Official Opposition leader and their support for Bill 115.
The Liberals recently unveiled proposed legislation to freeze the wages of 481,000 workers at hospitals, colleges, provincial agencies and the civil service.
The Tories said they can't vote for the bill because it exempts too many workers such as police and firefighters who are employed by municipalities, while the NDP say it is unconstitutional and will not survive a court challenge.
The government says it needs a two-year wage freeze from more than 1.2 million public sector workers so it can trim a $14.8-billion deficit without laying off staff or cutting services.