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Around 5,000 teachers and education workers gathered outside the Ontario provincial legislature at Queens Park on Aug. 28 to protest against a controversial bill that would impose wage freezes on Ontario teachers.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's teachers and education support workers took the provincial government to court Thursday, launching a court case that could have a lasting impact on how cash-strapped governments negotiate with workers.

Leaders of four major unions, including the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), say that legislation introduced by the Ontario Liberals that imposes the terms of members' contracts and restricts their right to strike violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"Bill 115 appears to be the beginning of a greater agenda to erode the rights of hard-working Ontarians," OSSTF president Ken Coran said at a news conference outside a downtown Toronto courthouse.

The issue of whether the teachers' federations were given sufficient time to bargain may become an important factor in the constitutional challenge launched in the Ontario Superior Court.

A similar bill was struck down in 2007 by the Supreme Court of Canada. It ruled that B.C.'s Liberal government had infringed on health workers' bargaining rights – in particular, the process of meaningful negotiations with their employer – by imposing contract terms through legislation.

ETFO president Sam Hammond said that the province never really negotiated with teachers, laying down "rigid, predetermined parameters" last February.

He said the unions hadn't been given a real opportunity to bargain locally with school boards before the province introduced the "draconian" legislation, granting itself powers to block teachers from taking job action.

Ontario's Minister of Education, Laurel Broten, said the province would "vigorously" defend against the challenge.

"Our position in court will be that [Bill 115] is constitutional, that we have respected the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including the right to a process of collective bargaining, and that, in any event, under the Charter this measure is both reasonable and justified in all the circumstances."

Ontario is struggling with a $14.8-billion deficit, and the government has said Bill 115 avoided costs associated teacher pay raises and bankable sick days that taxpayers couldn't afford. Teachers were so outraged at the legislation that many began withdrawing voluntary services – things like leading clubs and coaching sports teams – after the second week of school, when the bill was passed.

The elementary and secondary school unions have held strike votes, and could be in a legal strike position by November. Though the province has some powers through Bill 115 to block a strike, it has put school boards on notice that it would be unlikely to exercise those powers before a Dec. 31 deadline set for local bargaining between school boards and the unions.

ETFO members voted over 94 per cent in support of a strike mandate, and union leaders will be determining what to do with those results in the coming days, said Mr. Hammond.

"There's always a next step," he said.