Saturday, 30 March 2013

The ETFO Restores Extracurriculars

Convinced of the commitment of the governing Liberals to tackle issues important to members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) in a spirit of good faith, the ETFO is advising teachers to resume their provision of extracurricular activities for students.

The ETFO had suspended extracurricular activities in response to the infamously repressive Putting Students First Act, which the Ontario Liberals had enacted to restrict union bargaining rights and impose on the teachers various cuts to sick days and a wage cut in the form of unpaid development days.

Once Kathleen Wynne assumed leadership of the provincial Liberal Party talks that had been suspended by the PSFA under Dalton McGuinty resumed. The Globe and Mail reports that these renewed talks are purported to focus on protecting the bargaining rights of the teachers[1]. The unions are giving the new Premier a chance to prove she’s not a carbon copy of her predecessor. They are giving her a chance to prove she has an interest in respecting the rights of the working men and women of this province. While nothing concrete has so far been made public to suggest Ms. Wynne will be a friend to organized labour, the talks may yet confirm the hope that she intends to relate to organized labour fairly.

Of course, dead set against anything that might benefit unions, the Ontario Conservatives are charging that Ms. Wynne must have given the ETFO some kind of preferential treatment. Otherwise, the Conservatives argue, the ETFO would not have restored extracurricular activities. Kathleen Wynne, however, stated that there are no special deals and that the discussions have been focused largely on what the “…collective bargaining process will look like going forward.”[2] Are the Conservatives so jaded that they cannot believe a union would restore extracurriculars in a spirit of good faith while negotiations are proceeding? Or do the Conservatives believe there is so little reason to respect the rights of a union to be involved in discussions regarding its future, that the only way the discussions could be progressing well enough for the ETFO to restore extracurriculars would be if there is some sort of backroom deal brewing? It seems that, with few exceptions, politicians in this province have been too busy viewing unions with their own biases to see clearly.  

Throughout this process the ETFO has masterfully balanced protection of the rights of its members with the union’s interests in negotiating with the government. In suspending extracurricular activities until it could be assured that the government was willing to negotiate in good faith, the ETFO sent a clear message that it would not be lured in by promises that could have proved empty.

All of the teachers unions in Ontario have at once responded to the terrible powers exercised by the McGuinty Liberals with united opposition and an impressive reasonableness in managing their ongoing negotiations with Kathleen Wynne. If this government has more sense than its predecessor, the good faith and respect displayed by the unions will be met in kind.

There is a workable solution to the problems between the government and the teachers’ unions and ETFO’s recent decision to restore extracurriculars may be one of many steps toward a peaceful resolution to these tensions. 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Parliament Following the Lead of Organized Labour

On March 20, Parliament passed a private member’s bill to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) and the Criminal Code. The bill aims to include “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in the CHRA. It also aims to include gender identity and gender expression as “distinguishing characteristics”, which will fall under the hate crimes provisions of the Criminal Code. The bill will also require a judge to consider distinguishing characteristics during sentencing. Despite Prime Minister Harper’s opposition, the bill passed in a vote with 149 yeas and 137 nays. Though Parliament passed the bill it won’t become law until it is passed by the Senate and receives royal assent. If the bill receives royal assent it will become law 30 days later.

Hate crimes are governed by sections 318 and 319 of the Code. These crimes may be triggered when a crime is based on a person’s race, colour, ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation. It is worthwhile to note that despite the vast number of crimes committed against women simply because of their gender, sex is not a basis for a hate crime under the provisions of the Code[1]. This has left a large gap in the protections offered by the Code. While Bill C-279 refers to gender identity and gender expression and does not specifically address sex, it has brought renewed attention to gender issues and hate crimes. There is a chance that the Legislature will be more amenable to including sex as a basis for hate crimes in the future. In that respect, the bill may yet have a direct positive impact on all people in Canada.

Randall Garrison, the NDP MP, who introduced the bill in the House of Commons said after the vote:

We are happy there was all party support for formal protection of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Variant Canadians’ rights under the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code with Bill C-279.

We need to recognize the work of the many people and organizations across the country who worked hard to advance this important issue.[2]  

Among the organizations Garrison notes as being important to the passage of this bill are unions across the country. Ever aware that “an injury to one is an injury to all”, unions have for years been one of the greatest protectors of the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people. In the rights void created by an absence of legislation, union contracts have commonly offered protections for members of the LGBT community by negotiating non-discrimination, non-harassment and anti-violence clause in collective agreements.

Unions may assist transgender members by negotiating for access to benefit coverage for the medical treatments required for transition (the process of changing sex). Transgender people are often denied access to health care treatments of transition-related expenses. In the absence of legislation, the unions have commonly been a source of support for transgender people in need of assistance in their fight for equal treatment[3]. There are times when the collective agreement is the only source of support transgendered people have. This support is often considerable. Negotiation of a clause ensuring medical coverage for sex-reassignment surgery, for instance, has been one significant benefit unions have been uniquely positioned to ensure for transgender members[4].

Unions continue to be pivotal in the ongoing fight for rights of transgender members. Unions support transgender members in myriad ways, from demanding employers abide by their duty to accommodate, to the negotiation of inclusive clauses in collective agreements to educating employers and the public about the unique challenges and interests of transgender members. Organized labour has been far ahead of lawmakers in respecting the basic human rights and dignity of all people. It’s nice to see that Parliament may finally be catching up.

It is noteworthy that 18 Conservative MPs boldly chose not to toe the party line and voted to recognize the rights of transgender people. These MPs deserve some recognition themselves. To view how the MPs voted, a record of the vote on this bill can be found here.