Constitutional challenge of Ontario’s wage-cap bill begins in court

Groups representing thousands of public sector employees will go against it Government of Ontario in court this week as the two sides argue over legislation that limits workers’ wages.

Groups are challenging the constitutionality of Invoice 124a law passed in 2019 that limits pay increases to 1% per year for Ontario Public Service employees as well as public sector workers, including nurses and teachers.

The bill’s provisions will be in effect for three years as new contracts are negotiated, and the Tories said it is a time-limited approach to help eliminate the deficit.

Critics have long called for the bill’s repeal, saying it contributed to a severe nursing shortage.

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The province has rejected those calls, although the prime minister says the government will negotiate fairly when the contracts affected by the bill expire.

The lawsuit is expected to be heard in Toronto in 10 days, starting Monday, and involves 10 applicants – most of them unions representing teachers, nurses, public service workers , universities and their faculty and engineers, among dozens of other professions.

The groups argue that the bill violates the part of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects meaningful collective bargaining.

“Prop 124 imposes restrictions on all forms of compensation and has undermined the bargaining power of nurses in times of crisis of their shortage of skilled workers, exacerbated by a global pandemic, which may have amplified that power,” the Ontario Nurses Association lawyers wrote in fact filing in court.

For its part, the province argued that the bill did not violate the Charter.

The nurses group also argued that the bill discriminates against women and violates gender and gender equality in the other two parts of the Charter. The Nursing Association notes more than 90% of its members are female.

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“The Act has caused many harms to nurses including: crippled collective bargaining; the arbitral award on interest is void; increasing vacancies affecting healthcare delivery; a demoralized workforce with a crippling workload; and backlash against the union,” the nurses wrote in court documents.

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The union representing Catholic teachers argued the bill “uses legislative power to avoid bargaining in good faith over the most basic term of employment for teachers – the compensation they receive in exchange for take their labor”.

The groups argue that there is a lack of meaningful consultation before the bill is introduced in the legislature.

Meanwhile, the province argues that the law does not interfere with meaningful collective bargaining and does not prevent negotiations on compensation issues.

“The effect of Proposition 124 is solely to prevent a specific negotiation or arbitration outcome: compensation increases by more than 1% annually during the three-year censorship period,” the province wrote in its filing with the court.

Click to play video: 'Peterborough and area paramedics protest to repeal Proposition 124'

Peterborough and area health workers protest for the repeal of Proposition 124

Peterborough and area health care workers protest for the repeal of Proposition 124 – March 17, 2022

“The charter does not guarantee unlimited annual wage increases for public sector workers.”

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The province argued that it consulted in good faith with groups between the introduction of the bill in June 2019 and the second reading of the bill in November 2019.

It also argues that the bill does not interfere with the groups’ ability to negotiate for jobs, benefits and seniority.

The province also said the bill is not discriminatory

“There is no evidence of a link between an employee’s gender and the application of Proposition 124,” the province wrote.

Click to play video: 'Ontario teachers union kicks court against Proposition 124'

Ontario teachers unions launch court challenge against Proposition 124

Ontario teachers unions launch challenge court against Proposition 124 – December 12, 2019

It argues that the law balances the interests of public sector workers who want a raise with the taxpayers paying for those raises and the public relying on those workers’ vital services.

The province, which wants the case dismissed at costs, argued that the court should not weigh in on the issue, as it is a political issue.

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“The court should decline an invitation to assume judicial control over public sector compensation payments,” the province said.

Attorneys for the Ontario government further argued that the bill was indistinguishable from “widespread time-limited indemnity statutes upheld by the Supreme Court”.

Groups taking the government to court want the law to be seen as unconstitutional, along with damages and costs. They also want an order that any collective agreements affected be set aside and back to negotiation.

© 2022 Canadian Press

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