Friday, 18 January 2013

A Strike by Any Other Name...

On January 11th, the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) issued a decision on the teachers’ unions’ planned one-day protest of the collective agreements that were imposed on them under the Putting Students First Act (PSFA).  The decision found that the planned protests, in substance, were strikes and were therefore illegal.

On January 9th, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) announced that it planned to have its members participate in a “day of protest” or “political protest” over the imposed collective agreements. The protest was to occur on Friday, January 11th. The protest was to include a full-day withdrawal of services by ETFO members.

The question for the OLRB was whether the planned political protest would constitute an illegal strike. The Collective Agreements were imposed by order of the Lieutenant Governor in Council under authority of section 9(2) of the PSFA. Under both section 9(4) of the Act and various sections of the Ontario Labour Relations Act (LRA) a strike or lockout in defiance of such an order is illegal.

“Strike” is defined in section 1 of the LRA in the following way:

“strike” includes a cessation of work, a refusal to work or to continue to work by employees in combination or in concert or in accordance with a common understanding, or a slow-down or other concerted activity on the part of employees designed to restrict or limit output.

One of the problems faced by the ETFO was that the planned protest included a cessation of work via the withdrawal of services. Further, there is a fairly large line of Board decisions which find “political strikes” to nevertheless be strikes and consequently illegal during a collective agreement. The ETFO argued that the precedents did not apply in this situation because the situation of the ETFO was different from those past decisions in that the current situation of the ETFO involved the protest of collective agreements that had been imposed on them. The other decisions concerned the protest of freely negotiated collective agreements. The Board was not swayed by this argument, finding that if ETFO’s position were to succeed it would undermine the purposes of the PSFA. Further, any Charter argument in support of the planned protest was rejected, with the Board stating:

Nor am I persuaded that the Charter protection afforded to speech (whether “labour speech” or speech generally) outweighs the disruption that will be wrought on the statutory labour relations scheme by ETFO’s position…

Having made these determinations, the Board decided that the proposed planned day of protest would constitute an illegal strike. Though disagreeing with the decision the union leadership asserted their respect for the decision-making authority of the OLRB.

While this was a sound judgment based on the current laws, the decision only further highlights how onerous the PSFA is. In imposing collective agreements, the Act has not only stripped the teachers of their right to strike, it has severely stifled the ability of teachers to voice dissent in any effective way. The precedent this sets is worrisome. Dissent is a bedrock principle to the health of our democracy. Every healthy and robust democracy allows for dissent. The ability to dissent, in other words, is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to measuring the health of a democracy. While it’s true that this is arguably only one indication of a democracy’s health, it is a nevertheless a vital indicator.

The ETFO is litigating the constitutionality of Bill 115 (and the PSFA) in court. We hope the court will take measures to correct the grievous violations of Charter-protected rights wrought by Bill 115 and restore some semblance of democratic order to Ontario.


Tuesday, 15 January 2013

On this Day in the History of the International Labour Movement

Solidarity Forever

On this day in 1915 Ralph Chaplin finished writing the song “Solidarity Forever”. The song was first written for and published by his union, the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW)[1]. Little did Chaplin know at the time that the song would go on to become an anthem of the latter-day labour movement[2] and subsequently spread to unions in beyond US borders.[3] The song has also spread into the political realm, with the New Democrat Party in Canada singing “Solidarity Forever” at its founding convention over 50 years ago[4].
Members of the IWW produced many touching pieces which expressed support for organized labour. Prominent among the songwriters was Joe Hill. Unfortunately, Hill’s life was brought to an untimely end.
While organizing workers in Salt Lake City, Hill was convicted of killing a man named John G. Morrison. Whether Joe Hill was actually guilty of Mr. Morrison’s death is a matter of speculation. Hill’s trial was reported to be openly hostile to Hill and the IWW. Many IWW supporters asserted that the trial was unjust. A lawyer summarizing the case for Solidarity stated that the main thing the State had against Hill “is that he is an IWW and therefore sure to be guilty.” Hill was executed in 1915. Not to be defeated even in death, Hill’s last will was to advise others: “Don’t waste any time mourning – ORGANIZE!”[5]
Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever” was finished only 6 months before Hill’s execution and continued the proud tradition of union music done so expertly by Joe Hill. The song has been adopted by other major unions besides the IWW and has become an anthem for unions in multiple countries.
The song’s international appeal is a testament to the common struggles and interests of workers the world over. It emphasizes the strength and balance that can come only from solidarity. No matter where a worker is in the world, workers are stronger when they stand together in solidarity. In this sense, “Solidarity Forever” is more than a song – it is a timeless expression of the ideological conflict between the interests of workers and employers, emphasizing the need for workers to stand together in the fight for justice amidst this tension. The simple, poignant chorus of Chaplin’s song perfectly summarizes this reality:
Solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever!
For the union makes us strong.
“Solidarity Forever” has been performed by many esteemed artists, such as Utah Phillips, Pete Seeger and Leonard Cohen.  No matter your musical tastes, the song has almost certainly performed by an artist of your liking. Anyone who believes in the rights of organized labour is encouraged to take the time to enjoy this iconic song.

Monday, 14 January 2013

On this Day in the History of the International Labour Movement

Reesor Siding Strike

On January 14, 1963 Canada saw one of the bloodiest labour disputes in its nation’s history. What has since gone down in infamy, the Reesor Siding Strike of 1963 involved a contract dispute between Lumber and Sawmill Workers’ Union (LSWU) and the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company. Though reliant on the LSWU’s logs for its operations, the Company nevertheless sought to impose harsh terms on the union, expecting the union to accept a wage freeze and to work seven days a week for two straight months during the Company’s busy season. Of all the companies in the area dependent on lumber, only the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company expected its workers to work seven days a week. When the union rejected the company’s demands and conciliation failed, 1515 union members walked off the job[1].

The strike was weakened from the start. The union’s bargaining position was compromised by the fact that about a quarter of the Company’s lumber was supplied by local area woodcutters. The union asked the woodcutters to join the strike as a way to increase the pressure on the Company. Not unlike the union, however, the woodcutters were depending on the revenue from their provision of lumber to the Company for their own livelihoods. As a result, they refused the union’s requests. The unfair demands of the Company had effectively created a situation where the positions of the union and the local woodcutters were opposing and intractable.

To remedy their weakened position, some union members began to sabotage the lumber of the local woodcutters.  On February 11, in excess of 400 striking union members arrived to dump logs that had been stockpiled by the local woodcutters. The woodcutters, however, had anticipated some action along these lines and had come prepared to face the strikers. When the strikers arrived they were met by 20 armed woodcutters who began firing on them. Three of the union members were killed in the violent confrontation. Eight more were wounded. The tragedy roused the provincial government to intervene and the strike was then settled through arbitration[2].

This tragedy demonstrates the grave consequences that can result when there is a lack of strong anti-scab laws protecting the rights of a worker to his or her job. If employers are not able to bring in replacement workers the employer must bargain more earnestly, treat workers with due dignity and respect, and settle disputes. The labour relations regime is reliant on each side to a dispute coming to the bargaining table to resolve conflict. An absence of anti-scab laws provides employers with an obvious disincentive from bargaining and can create a poisoned labour relations atmosphere that may be prone to violence. Cognizant of these dangers, in 1993 the Ontario government introduced anti-scab legislation. Under the Conservative leadership of Mike Harris, however, the province’s anti-scab laws were repealed a mere two years later[3].

As the Reesor Siding incident demonstrates with deadly poignancy, the potential for destruction that such a lack of law brings is too substantial to ignore - though this hasn’t stopped some employers from trying. Employers have often argued against anti-scab legislation, asserting that such laws put a chill on investment. There is little evidence to support this claim. Indeed, there is strong evidence to the contrary. For instance, after anti-scab laws were introduced in Ontario, the province actually saw an increase in investment and employment[4]. It is possible, then, that not only is the protection of workers’ jobs good for workers it is also good for business.

If even one person is harmed on either side of a labour dispute the harm is far too great, if only because the harm could be avoided through responsible legislation and a basic respect for workers’ rights. 


[1] Osborne, Brian, “Commemorating Nations’ Workers” The Case of the ‘Reesor Siding Incident’, from Heritage From Below, ed. Iain JM Robertson (Ashgate Publishing Company, Vermont, 2012) at p. 183. Online:
[2] Supra 1 at p. 189.