Ontario's Education Minister says she decided to allow high school teachers who illegally went on strike last spring to collect full pension credits because the individual teachers "did not understand" at the time that their strike was against the law.
Liz Sandals, however, took aim at the teachers' union leaders, arguing they should not have staged the illegal work stoppage.
"The union should have known better. The union should have read the act," Ms. Sandals told reporters at Queen's Park on Monday, referring to the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act. "But the individual members who were being penalized did not understand that they were on an unlawful strike … they didn't know."
As first revealed by The Globe and Mail, the Liberal government quietly changed the rules of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan to allow teachers at three school boards who staged illegal strikes last spring to accrue pension credits for the time they were off the job. The government is allowing the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation to pay the cost of making up the pension credits.
Under normal circumstances, time away from the job during an illegal walkout is not pensionable.
Teachers in Peel, Durham and Sudbury were on strike for between three and six weeks in the spring, leaving 74,000 students out of class.
The Ontario Labour Relations Board deemed the strikes "unlawful" on May 26; the government passed back-to-work legislation two days later. The board declared the strikes illegal because they involved only a handful of union locals but were motivated by provincewide bargaining issues.
Ms. Sandals said the teachers themselves thought the strikes were above board because they had taken strike votes and the OSSTF led them to believe the job action was legal. Therefore, she said, it was not fair to punish them by denying them pension credit.
"It was quite clear that the teachers were not aware that they were participating in an illegal strike until the labour relations board ruled," she said. "The issue here was: Why would we penalize people who had not willfully participated in an illegal strike?"
She said she did not understand why the OSSTF called the local strikes at the height of tense bargaining between the province and the union, given that the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act clearly split negotiations into provincewide and local issues. "What the union did perplexed me, which I think is what I said the first week of the strike, and pointed out there were some legal problems."
OSSTF president Paul Elliott did not respond to an e-mail outlining Ms. Sandals' criticisms of his union.
The minister dismissed concerns that changing the rules for the teachers would set a precedent for other unions contemplating illegal job action. She said the deal to change the rules applies only to the strikes in the spring, and if other unions try to use her decision to argue precedent in a future illegal strike, the government will refuse the request.
"There can be no confusion that this is a ruling that would ever apply in any other circumstance. It is about a very unique set of circumstances," she said. Quite frankly, unions present you with all sorts of creative interpretations of virtually every rule ever known to mankind, and it's the government's job or the board's job, as the case may be, to say no. No."
Ms. Sandals said she was confident the labour board's ruling had made clear to teachers what constitutes an illegal strike.
Asked if she would guarantee that the government would not change the rules on pension credits for future illegal strikes, Ms. Sandals said, "Quite frankly, now that the rules have been endorsed by the Ontario Labour Relations Board, we'll never have to do it again."