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writing || Ontario Teachers are Essential: The Economic, Social Safety, and Human Rights Consequences of Teachers’ Right to Strike

Particularly in the public sector, strikes are an integral element of the collective bargaining agreement negotiation process. With an employer as powerful and politically driven as the government, employees’ best option for leverage is delaying a resolution and using the population’s subsequent outrage to pressure for a concession. However, Canada’s educational institutions ought to be excluded from this negotiation tactic which holds students hostage in a dispute that is not their own. This paper aims to clarify the significance of the right to strike for Ontario’s teacher unions, posit the argument that teachers in Ontario should be designated an “essential service” by law, and finally offer several ties to current and historical events that prove this is an immediate and pressing economic, social safety, and human rights issue.

The right of unions to contest demands made by their employers in regular renegotiations of their collective agreements is an important constitutional right. Not only this, but even law-makers make mistakes, and only by affording the right to question these decisions can mistakes be caught. One must only look to Ontario’s Bill 115 (also known as the Putting Students First Act) dispute that began with its passing as legislation in 2012 for an example. The bill, voted in by Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty-led Liberal government and the Conservative  Party, and opposed by the NDP, was officially enforced by the Lieutenant Governor in September of the same year. Primarily an instrument to enable the budget cuts that the government wanted to effect in order to reduce Ontario’s deficit after the recession, the bill also restricted salary increases and limited the ability of teachers to strike (Alphonso & Howlett, 2012). After four school boards – all part of the Ontario Teacher’s Federation – legally contested it, negotiations reached an impasse (Sherwood, 2015). Strikes and restrictions of output began in December and were only resolved in January 2013 with a repeal of the bill. Later, the Supreme Court of Canada declared the Bill unconstitutional – on the basis that it had been passed without an attempt at prior collective bargaining with the teachers whom it most affected (School Board Group, 2016). Upon retrospect, this ruling is heavily significant. Without the uproar that resulted from the strikes, a breach of the Constitution may have been passed undetected through our legal system.

Clearly, protection needs to be in place for teachers against the back-and-forth swaying in policy agendas and budget decisions as a result of the cycles inherent in our electoral system. Rights also need to exist – and they do – to protect groups in a position of less power from self-interested legislators and authoritative employers.

Those protections come in the form of labour relations acts, and the right of unions to use time to their advantage. Chris Voss, former FBI hostage negotiator and author aptly stated in his acclaimed book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on it that “every single negotiation involves another commodity that’s far more important to us, which is time – minutes, hours, our investment in time.” (Voss & Raz, 2016) A strike is just that – an exploitation by labour unions of the single most powerful resource they have in their toolkit. However, when it comes to Ontario’s education workers, it is the time of the 70,000 secondary school students and 800,000 elementary school students that is also at stake (Pelt & Clemens, n.d.). This fact has wider implications in economic, social safety, and human equity contexts, meriting a close investigation into the details surrounding teachers’ rights to suspend education.

In order for limitations to be placed on a profession’s constitutional right to strike in the workplace, it must be deemed an “essential service”, which The Public Service Labour Relations Act defines as: “a service, facility or activity of the Government of Canada that is or will be, at any time, necessary for the safety or security of the public or a segment of the public.” (Government of Canada, 2019) Although I will shortly argue that education is, in fact, necessary for Canadian “safety or security”, it is relevant to note that the definition itself of what constitutes an essential service has changed throughout history and should be continually revisited to account for changing climates. In 1907, the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act effectively made mining, transportation, communications , public utilities and public services in light of Canada’s priorities at the time, even though we wouldn’t consider all of these industries essential for “safety or security” today (Tucker, 2019, p. 114).

Let us begin by assessing the potential harm in considering elementary and secondary school teachers an “essential service”. The most significant impact of such a decision is that a failure to negotiate the terms of a collective agreement will not be left to the two parties involved to resolve. Instead, the dispute will resort directly to arbitration by a neutral third party, which some academics are opposed to. They suggest that relationships are better preserved when it is the two parties involved that reach an agreement, however this argument’s validity is questionable given the frequent – and heavily publicized – rises in tensions between employers and employees whenever a union submits their “no-board” notice in preparation for a strike (Rushowy & Benzie, 2013). Moreover, according to empirical studies, resolutions by arbitration actually have a tendency of favoring the employee (Doorey, n.d.). Thus, not only would the more frequent – or potentially even absolute – use of arbitration in union disputes involving teachers keep parents and their children out of disagreements, but it would also likely result in either the maintenance or amelioration of current standards for teachers as well.

On the other side of the issue, continuing to allow teachers to strike is an overwhelmingly more harmful mandate. First, and while recognizably a weak argument on the grounds of human rights interests, the economic impacts are huge and not to be overlooked for their long-term impacts. A suspension of education by the very individuals responsible for instilling an interest in education and curiosity in our children is sure to send the wrong message. In an article by CTV News, Toronto mother of three Joy Henderson spoke on behalf of many parents when she said, “It’s also going to be difficult getting my Grade 4 son to study when he thinks he doesn’t have to.” (Jeffords, 2019) For a country such as Canada that relies on its guaranteed wealth of skilled and motivated human capital, regular strikes can impair the productivity of our workforce for generations. Not only this, but parents of younger children bear the real burden of the strikes when they must scramble to find daycare or alternative arrangements for their children, placing unnecessary strain on professions in the province that employ parents – which is all professions.

Moreover, one might argue that education is not essential to “health and safety”, but given the frequent citation of education as a solution to many violence, health, and gang issues in underprivileged communities, and public sanitation crises in developing nations, one would think that the opposite was true as well. In fact, statistics confirm that decreases or deteriorations in education can have negative consequences. In the 1980s, the 56 days-long strike in public schools in the Sudbury region resulted in 340 more students quitting school than before  – a statistic that is disturbing considering the direct correlation between school dropout rates and crime (Rushowy, 2015).

Finally, strikes in the school system are extremely inequitable on both socio-economic and disability discrimination grounds. In Ontario, 84.3% of teachers are unionized, and there is no support provided to parents who wish to educate their children in private or independent schools (Pelt & Clemens, n.d.). As a result, few alternatives exist for parents in a lower socio-economic class to respond to consequences of teacher labour disputes. Not to mention that for many children coming from such backgrounds, the extra-curricular activities offered in their public schools serve as their only opportunity to participate in sports and explore hobbies in a safe environment. Full-day school strikes also significantly affect children with learning disabilities because, as was the case in the Sudbury strikes, course material is often condensed to retain the school year’s schedule, resulting in increased workloads once the labour disputes are resolved (Rushowy, 2015). The public school system is public in Canada for one very important reason – to allow everyone, regardless of background – equal access to educational opportunities that can facilitate social mobility and therefore improve the entire country’s social welfare. Strikes in schools are a direct and urgent impediment on this fundamental Canadian mission.

Ontario’s education system is undeniably heavily affected by the current political climate. Each new government has its own opinion and agenda on how best to distribute budgets among its school boards, which makes teacher pay, requirements, and benefits highly sensitive to fluctuations in government. However, this burden should never be unfairly passed on to the children and parents for whom these services are absolutely essential, and by consequence, to the country for which these services will ensure future success and prosperity. With Ontario elementary and secondary school teachers facing yet another collective agreement negotiation with the expiration of their previous one on August 31st, 2019, schools, parents and children across the province are preparing for another period of unfair uncertainty about their future (Paling, 2019). In conclusion, the consequences caused by school strikes are disastrous on economic, social safety, and human rights grounds. Dispute resolution on behalf of teachers should follow the processes in place for essential services and be resolved by third party arbitrators in all cases that fail to reach agreements without a conciliation officer. As Dalton McGuinty put it: “Let’s agree to have this matter settled in court, not in our schools.” (Rushowy & Benzie, 2013)


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