When Education and Legislation Meet: Teacher Collective Bargaining in Canada

By Andy Hanson
March 7, 2014

Provincial and territorial legislation governing education in Canada falls into four categories: governance and certification; recognition of teachers’ unions; the right to collective bargaining; and, more recently, reversing the gains made by teachers. Each of these categories characterizes a period in labour relations on the education landscape.

Before Confederation, colonial jurisdictions legislated school acts establishing a top-down governance model as an imperial arm of the British state. Normal Schools, the state training facilities for teachers, standardized entrance requirements, pedagogy, and curriculum. Nova Scotia’s first Education Act passed in 1808 (Nova Scotia School Boards Association), and Ontario, then Canada West, passed its Common School Act in 1846 (Graham 1974, 171). At the time of Confederation, each province retained responsibility for its school system. This was particularly important for the Québécois who were seeking protections for their language and culture. Each province and territory adopted an education act or school act to regulate public education once it eventually became an independant jurisdiction.

Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century teachers had to cope with overcrowded classrooms, low pay, and exploitive working conditions, particularly for women (Prentice 1985, 97-121). Teachers found collective expression in their unions. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, teachers in Quebec and the Maritimes had union representation (Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers; Nova Scotia Teachers Union). Following the First World War, new teachers’ unions were organized across Canada. By the end of the Second World War, they were firmly established on the education landscape[1]. The post-war period of labour activism that developed the Canadian welfare state, brought with it legal support for collective bargaining. Many provinces enacted a second category of education legislation to recognize and regulate teachers’ labour organizations. The teachers unions were ensured of their continued viability through statutory designation, closed shop status, and dues check-off, but were denied collective bargaining rights (Schucher and Slinn 2012, 22-25).[2]

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, teachers became militant, engaging in illegal strikes to fight for the right to collective bargaining (Heron 2012, 94-98). During this period seventeen thousand Québécois teachers were on strike for a period of two months; Newfoundland teachers were on strike for over a month; and Ontario teachers held a one-day province-wide strike. The strikes resulted in a third category of legislation, provincial collective bargaining acts regulating labour relations between the teachers’ unions and the trustees. Generally, the new labour regimes were unique to the education sector and did not always contain the right to strike.

It is important to note that the unique legislation granting collective bargaining rights to teachers introduced additional steps in the process beyond those required of other workers. In New Brunswick teachers were required to vote on the school board’s final offer before they could strike (New Brunswick 1973, s. 77). Ontario established the Education Relations Commission to oversee teachers’ collective bargaining (Ontario 1975, s. 59-62). To this day in Manitoba[3] and in Prince Edward Island[4], teachers may not strike; binding arbitration remains the dispute resolution mechanism (Manitoba Teachers’ Society; Prince Edward Island Teachers Association 2012). New Brunswick, Quebec (Dolbec 2012), Northwest Territories (Northwest Territories 1996), and Nunavut (Nunavut 2011) apply restrictions to all public sector workers including teachers.

Negotiating Teams and Collective Agreements: Provincial or Local Negotiations

In all provinces and territories, legislation requires teachers to negotiate with trustees of the local boards of education, the state, or some combination of the two. Over the past half century, education funding has been almost entirely removed from local property taxes and transferred to the general revenues of provincial/territorial governments.[5] As a result, labour negotiations have tended to migrate to the provincial level as neoliberal states have sought to contain the economic demands of teachers. In Saskatchewan, government appointees outnumber trustees on the collective bargaining committee (Saskatchewan 2010, s. 237). In Newfoundland and Labrador, the School Board Committee's chief negotiator is an appointee of the Treasury Board, who has “sole and final decision on the tentative rejection or approval of a proposal” during negotiations (Newfoundland and Labrador 2007, s. 10).

The majority of the provinces and territories have a form of province-wide bargaining, often in conjunction with local bargaining. Manitoba is the only province that retains exclusively local negotiations (Paci 2012). Nova Scotia, Quebec, Saskatchewan (Schmaltz 2012), and British Columbia have two-tiered bargaining regimes with Ontario and Alberta recently adopting a similar pattern (Ontario Ministry of Education 2009; The Alberta Teachers’ Association). This has become the most common teacher-bargaining regime in Canada; cost items are decided provincially while organizational matters are decided locally. Quebec is the most unique. The Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) represents all public service unions, including teachers, under one structure for provincial collective bargaining on cost issues, while individual unions conduct local negotiations for non-cost items.[6] In Quebec, the legislation permits free collective bargaining, but in practice teachers are prevented from striking over wages (Dolbec 2012, Menard 2013).[7] As a result, Quebec teachers’ wages are among the lowest in the country while their working conditions are among the best.

Reversing Gains: The Neoliberal State

Canada has undergone a critical period of regime change since the mid-1970s. The economic and political elites took up the neoliberal project in an effort to dismantle the post-war social accord that was the Keynesian welfare state. Legal protections for union activity were undermined with the application of new forms of legislation that restricted wages and undermined workers’ protections. In education, retrenchment, and the neoliberal reform of state institutions resulted in the commodification and deprofessionalization of teaching (Panitch and Swartz 1993, 80–85, 102; Sears 2003, 59–83).

The state has pressured teachers into new collective bargaining practices in Ontario, Alberta, and to some degree British Columbia. Teachers’ collective bargaining has been placed under the labour relations acts where governments can swiftly enact legislation to suppress teacher militancy. Recently, the Ontario Liberal government has forced the teachers’ unions into provincial negotiations for all cost items (Ontario Ministry of Education 2009). Similarly, Alberta’s teachers have been mandated into negotiating a “tripartite agreement” with the Minister of Education and the Alberta School Boards Association (Alberta Teachers’ Association 2012). Collective bargaining has become meaningless in British Columbia in the twenty-first century as the Liberal government repeatedly legislated the terms of collective agreements (British Columbia Teachers’ Federation). These examples of state-imposed provincial negotiations reflect a tendency of neoliberal governments to centralize power structures to control the bargaining process. Supported by right-wing think tanks, neo-liberal governments have reshaped assumptions concerning the role of the state in providing public services and enacted legislation to undermine teachers’ long-held entitlements as unionized workers.

The full version of this article including provincial/territorial detail is available on the CTF Research Library.

[1] Earliest date of formation of a teachers’ unions according to their websites: NFLD, 1890; NS, 1895; PEI, 1880; NB, 1946; QC 1864; ON, 1918; MB, 1919; SK, 1933; AB, 1917; BC, 1919; YK, 1955; NWT, 1953; NU, 1999.

[2] Examples of legislation recognizing union representation: NFLD, Teachers Association Act; NS, Teaching Profession Act; ON, Teaching Profession Act; SK, Teachers’ Federation Act; AB, Teaching Profession Act.

[3] Manitoba teachers were granted the right to strike in 1948 but lost it in 1956 (Lemieux 2012, 165-66).

[4] PEI teachers’ wages remain the second lowest in the country, after Quebec (British Columbia Teachers 2012).

[5] Nova Scotia, Quebec, Manitoba, and Alberta retain minimal local taxation.

[6] One union, the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), broke away from the CSQ in 2006.

[7] Both these sources indicated that the practice differs from the legislation. Dolbec stated that the legislation permitting teachers to strike over wages in the first year of a contract, was never acted upon by the Conseil du Trésor; so teachers leave other items on the table if they wish to strike.

Andy Hanson is a labour historian, researcher, and former teacher.

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