Following a recent Supreme Court decision in favour of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), governments across Canada are on notice that they cannot use legislation to unilaterally strip out of existing collective agreements provisions that they don’t happen to like, says Sandra Johnston, co-ordinator of Teacher Welfare of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
“Governments have been put on notice that they must respect the process and outcomes of collective bargaining with teachers and other unionized employees,” Johnston said. “The constitutional right to freedom of association extends to unionized workers the right to collectively bargain and the right to enforce the provisions of their collective agreements if governments fail to deliver on them.”
Johnston’s comments came on the heels of a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that restores class size, class composition and specialist teacher ratios that were stripped from teachers’ contracts by the B.C. government in 2002. The Nov. 10 decision, rendered from the bench only minutes after the hearing ended, overturns the B.C. Court of Appeal’s 2015 ruling in favour of the government, and restored the original decision in the union’s favour by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin.
In a statement, BCTF president Glen Hansman said the court decision is “a massive victory for our rights and vindication of all the years we have spent fighting the B.C. government’s unconstitutional legislation.”
He also stated that it was a “very emotional day.”
“We came to Ottawa today for a hearing and instead got a surprise ruling from the bench. Those of us there in the courtroom couldn’t help but cheer and I know there are thousands of teachers back home in B.C. doing the same,” he said.
“I am so proud of all our members, our past presidents, and executive committees for sticking with this fight for so long. It has been a tough journey and a long road, but today we finally have justice.”
BCTF expects the ruling to cost the B.C. government in the range of $250 to $300 million. Reinstating class sizes to 2002 levels may require the hiring of around 3,500 teachers.
The Canadian Teachers’ Federation called it a “landmark decision” that is a victory for B.C. students but also an important decision for all students and teachers in the country.
“Kudos to the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) for its staunch commitment and determination to see justice prevail,” said CTF president Heather Smith in a statement. “This decision sends a message to any provincial/territorial government wishing to strip away teachers’ rights through legislation.”
Johnston stressed that the issue is a legal one relating to having provisions unilaterally stripped from a collective agreement through government legislation. It so happens that the provisions in question relate to class sizes and composition. The Court was not ruling on the merits of those provisions.
“In 2002, the Alberta government passed the Education Services Settlement Act stripping class size and student-teacher ratio provisions out of those collective agreements that had them and preventing similar provisions from being reintroduced in the arbitrations that followed,” said Johnston. “If the judgment obtained by the BCTF last week had been in place back then, that legislation would clearly have been unconstitutional. We all owe BCTF a debt of gratitude for advancing their case and achieving this result.” ❚