TORONTO - Three powerful unions representing about 191,000 teachers and school workers declared war Tuesday against the Ontario government and threatened to withdraw from extracurricular activities after a controversial anti-strike bill passed in the legislature.
The "draconian" legislation, which strips workers of their constitutional rights in the name of fiscal restraint, should send a shiver down the spine of every Canadian, the unions said.
"I think what you'll see is a very undemocratic wave start to ripple across the country and that will be extremely disappointing and challenging for us," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.
The minority Liberals argue the legislation, which passed with the support of the Progressive Conservatives, is needed to help them eliminate the province's $15-billion deficit.
But union leaders said it's not about a wage freeze or labour peace — since there was no threat of a strike — but stripping workers of their rights, similar to what's happened in some U.S. states.
"It just happened today in this legislature," Hammond said.
The legislation not only reins in wages, it also gives the government the power for at least two years to ban strikes and lockouts.
The provincial legislature is supposed to represent democracy, said Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.
"Unfortunately right now, the 'D' of democracy is a 'D' for dictatorship because the (education) minister had uncontrolled powers in this legislation," he said.
"People in this province will find it out because it will ultimately affect all of us."
But Education Minister Laurel Broten called it an "important day" that will allow the cash-strapped government to put money where it's most needed.
"We had to make choices to keep the dollars in the classroom, and ask our partners in education to take a pause when it comes to pay raises and benefits that are not in keeping with our current fiscal realities," she said.
After the final vote was tallied, several protesters jumped to their feet in the legislature, shouting "shame!"
The three union leaders were left fuming after they were asked by security to leave the second floor of the legislature shortly after the bill passed.
They're now taking their fight to the schools and courts and promising to wield their political and financial might to bring down the minority government.
They're vowing to challenge the legislation all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, a move that's gained the support of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
The two biggest unions representing elementary and secondary school teachers are urging their members to withdraw from any voluntary activities as a show of protest.
OSSTF is telling its 60,000 members not to volunteer for any extracurricular activities on Wednesday, such as coaching sports teams. The union will continue talks with school boards in an effort to reach local agreements, Coran said.
ETFO is going a step further and urging its 76,000 members not to participate in "any school-based or system level meetings of any kind" on Mondays — or any other days if they wish.
Some teachers volunteer for several extracurricular activities, Hammond said. They may decide to continue with some or none at all.
ETFO is calling their protest days "McGuinty Mondays" after Ontario's self-styled "education premier" Dalton McGuinty, who is now facing the fury of his former allies who helped him remain in power for nine years.
The legislation imposes new two-year contracts on thousands of teachers that freeze the pay of senior instructors and cut benefits.
It's based on an agreement the province reached with English Catholic and francophone teachers, which included three unpaid days off in the second year and reducing sick days in half to 10 a year.
But ETFO, OSSTF and CUPE Ontario, which represents 55,000 workers such as custodians and school secretaries, refused to sign on.
McGuinty has made it clear that he won't back down and will do the same with other public sector workers if his government can't negotiate a wage freeze through collective bargaining.
It's a risky move for a premier who's enjoyed the support of unions that have spent millions of dollars helping the Liberals get re-elected.
The Liberals brought the legislature back early to get the bill passed before Sept. 1, saying the province couldn't afford the rollover of old contracts.
But since the legislation is retroactive to that date, it can claw back any pay hikes or benefits after that date.