Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Solidarity Benefits us all

When people ask me, "Why can't labor organize the way it did in the thirties?' the answer is simple: everything we did then is now illegal.
Thomas Geoghegan

Just in case the ongoing controversy over Bill 115 left any doubt as to whether the rights of unions were under siege in this country, the Superintendent of the Prince Rupert, British Columbia school district has made a ruling that erases any doubt.

The Vancouver Sun reports that on Monday teachers in British Columbia wore black T-shirts imprinted with section 2 of the Charter in a province-wide protest of Bills 27 and 28. These Bills had restricted the rights of teachers to collectively bargain for class size and composition. This peaceful protest was organized by the British Columbia Teachers’ Union to mark the eleventh anniversary of the restrictive legislation. Though the protest was peaceful, the appearance of our fundamental freedoms on the T-shirts of teachers attracted the ire of the school board.

The Superintendent ruled that the T-shirts violated an arbitrator’s order from 2011 which stated that while teachers are in class they must not wear clothing or union buttons with political slogans on them. Three of the teachers were told to either remove or cover the T-shirts[1].

It seems there is an effort to relegate constitutional provisions to the fringes. Charter provisions are not slogans. A slogan is a noun that is often associated with a particular movement, political or otherwise. While it’s true that many rights of the labour movement have their legal basis in section 2 of the Charter, the provision is not a slogan. Nor is it a noun. Section 2 is a statement of basic individual rights in this country. It’s ironic that in deeming the T-shirts to have a political slogan on display in breach of the 2011 arbitrator’s order, the Superintendent infringed that very section.

Section 2(b) of the Charter guarantees the right to freedom of expression and reads:

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
               (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the
                press and other media of communication.

Charter protections are not absolute. They can be infringed under s. 1 of the Charter when the infringement is reasonably justified. This is an arrangement that has done well in this country. However, in ruling that the T-shirts were too provocative for teachers to wear, the Superintendent made a large claim, claiming not only to recognize freedom of expression when it appears, but also to know when the expression goes too far and when its limitation is reasonably justified. 

This sort of hubris shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is the same school board that told an elementary school teacher that a quote from the Dr. Seuss story Yertle the Turtle, in which a turtle climbs on the backs of other turtles in order to attain a better view, was a political statement that was inappropriate for display. The impugned quote reads: “I know on top you are seeing great sights, but down here on the bottom, we too should have rights.”[2]

At the time the quote was brought into question the BC teachers had been in a labour dispute with the school board. Not unlike the response of the Ontario teachers to Bill 115, the BC teachers voted to withdraw voluntary extracurricular activities in protest of a restrictive Bill.

Taken together, the current disregard of the rights of Ontario teachers and the suppression of the freedom of expression of BC teachers is setting a very regrettable trend. Labour rights are being trampled with such vehemence that even the mere recitation of one this country’s cherished constitutional provisions is “unsuitable.” If the right to wear clothing which espouses no particular interpretation of s. 2 of the Charter is considered an inappropriate political statement, one has to wonder which provision will be objected to next.

By standing together in solidarity and expressing in one voice their opposition to governmental interference with Charter rights, organized labour in both BC and Ontario are engaged in a struggle to safeguard the integrity of the Constitutional rights and freedoms of all Canadians. For the governments of each province, it seems provisions of the Charter are simply pesky rights that get in the way. Unfortunately for these officials, the solidarity of the unions might just help to ensure those rights are never taken away.

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