During the recent college teacher’s strike in Ontario there was a lot of media coverage of the inconvenience suffered by the students and of the possible consequences to their futures. On the other hand there was very little press commentary on the constitutional right of teacher’s to strike.
In Hamilton, Ontario, where I live, the Hamilton Spectator ran an editorial asserting that “the system failed thousands of college students” and “because of the devastating fallout” it “must not do so again.” The Spectator granted that the strike was legal but it did not explain that the right to strike is a fundamental human right that, since 2015, enjoys constitutional protection. In short, the teachers were simply doing what they were entitled to do under the constitution and a press, vigilant to such rights, should have commended the government for honouring the exercise that right.
In its Saskatchewan Federation of Labour decision the Court reiterated the position that it made clear in its Health Services decision of 2007 that Freedom of Association, of which the right to strike is an inherent aspect, is essential in realizing the Charter values of “human dignity, equality, liberty and respect for the autonomy of the person and the enhancement of democracy.” The rights to organize, bargain and strike have been affirmed globally as human rights by nearly all of the world’s nations including, prominently, Canada. These rights are not simply a political choice that may be given or taken away according to the whim of the party in power. They are not rights that legislatures may grant or take away on the basis of a majority vote. They are no less sacred in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, than the right to equity in employment that frequently, and rightfully, is defended in the press.
Without the right to strike working people are vulnerable to arbitrary, dehumanizing behavior by employers. Without that right, labour is reduced to the status of commodity, commonly referred to as a “human resource,” to be exploited and discarded as the boss sees fit. Without that right, labour is weak and cannot stand as a force against the inexorable growth in inequality that is leading us back to the undemocratic, class-based oppression of the past.
The International Labour Organization has been charged by the world community to establish, promote and defend the rights of labour to the benefit of all humanity. Towards that end the ILO has developed a set of standards regarding the right to strike. The fundamental principle is that strikes must be honoured for all workers except those in occupations so critical that withdrawal of their labour would harm “the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population.” Police, the military and hospital workers are essential. Teachers, the ILO has emphatically decided in the course of commenting on several cases including many from Canada, are not.
That does not mean that students who are harmed by education strikes do not matter. They do and we should seek to put in place systems that result in few education strikes. But education strikes do not endanger life, health or safety and so must be honoured for the greater good that results from respect for fundamental worker rights. Indeed, it is very likely that should the Ontario government’s back-to-work order be tested in the courts, it would be found unconstitutional.
If the Ontario government cannot legally and ethically impose a no-strike system on college teachers, it may negotiate such a system. Arbitration in one form or another is a viable alternative even though it has a number of side-effects unwanted by one side or the other. But, for college teachers, arbitration must be negotiated not imposed.
It has been my experience, knowing teachers at many levels and being one myself, that student-welfare is high on the priority list of educators everywhere. With good will on both sides a solution respectful of students, teachers and an empowered working class capable of defending democratic values will be found.