Special essential services legislation not in our best interest

August 1, 2001

It's hard to argue with the notion that education is critically important. So it's not surprising that many families greeted the introduction of special legislation making education an "essential" service this week with positive reviews. After all, our education system is an important public program that no one wants to see disrupted. But before we get too excited, we should ask ourselves if such legislation is really desirable or appropriate.

The Liberals have stated they are not looking for a war with labour. So why are they "restoring" education as an essential service under the Labour Relations Code? The legislation re-introduces an arbitrary, non-consultative, ad hoc approach from an earlier period of confrontational public sector labour relations--something that the current labour code was designed to end.

In fact no special legislation is required to designate public services "essential" and severely restrict strike activity. Any public sector employer can apply under the existing Labour Code to the Labour Relations Board for such designation. However, to be successful, employers must demonstrate to an independent panel that the services they seek to exempt from strike action truly meet the criteria of an "essential service."

While critical--as are most services--educational services are not essential within the commonly understood meaning: services directly responsible for life, personal safety or health. That is, services that are necessary or essential to prevent immediate and serious danger to the health, safety or welfare of British Columbians. In life or death circumstances, controlled strikes balance the right of working people to engage in job action with the rights of residents to have access to these truly essential services.

The government's Labour Code amendment will now make the provision of education programs to students under the School Act an essential service, but no balanced, compelling rationale has ever been provided to support this determination. During the last Social Credit government education was deemed to be essential (the first time ever in Canada), but this was unanimously found to be too broad and inconsistent with the international standard definition of essential service by the 1992 Committee of Special Advisors chaired by veteran labour mediator Vince Ready.

Certainly the temporary withdrawal of educational services is inconvenient and causes disruption for students and their families. But it does not pose a threat to the health, safety or welfare of residents. Despite recent media reports, very few student days have been lost due to strikes in BC. There has been no evidence of irreparable or long-term loss to students when there has been job action. Although students may not be in the classroom during job action, they learn a powerful lesson in collective action and the price citizens pay to live in a democracy.

Beyond the legal issue of what constitutes an essential service and whether public education in general meets the standard criteria for such designation, the exercise of full collective bargaining rights -- up to and including the right to strike -- is in the public interest. In the case of education, collective bargaining has improved the quality of education and provided education workers with a voice in their workplaces.

Teachers bargain not only for better pay and working conditions; they bargain for improvements in the education system. It is teachers, not employers, who have demanded and obtained smaller class sizes and increasing resources in the classroom. Similarly, nurses and other health care workers have fought for appropriate staffing levels. Were it not for the gains already made through collective bargaining, for example, the nursing shortage would be much greater than it is.

While not necessarily an outright ban on strikes, declaring the provision of educational programs "essential," resulting in "controlled" or limited strikes, significantly undermines the bargaining power of these employees. Although some employees may be off the job, many will continue to work during a strike. In such a scenario, employers save money because they continue to receive full government funding, but they pay fewer employees. Like Coast Mountain Bus Company, they will have no incentive to settle the dispute.

With no pressure on the Employers' Association we may well return to the days of overfilled classrooms, fewer resources for special needs students and no funds for music and art programs. We will likely witness a teacher shortage as teachers move to other jurisdictions for better pay and working conditions. Why are we risking these consequences?