Ontario Labour Relations Board Dismisses Unions' Case

Teachers' Unions Fight for Right to Participate in Deciding Appropriate COVID-19 Measures

On October 1, the Chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) dismissed the health and safety case of the unions representing teachers and education workers on the reopening of schools during the pandemic.[1] The ruling was based on jurisdictional grounds without the Board hearing substantive evidence. The Chair stated that the Board's jurisdiction is limited to appeals of orders made by inspectors under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and that no such order was made by an inspector, therefore the Board has no jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

At the end of August, representatives of Ontario's four major unions representing teachers and education workers issued a request to the Minister of Labour that orders be made requiring the Ministry of Education to set standards around physical distancing, cohorting, ventilation, and transportation for a safe reopening of schools. Following the failure of the Ministry of Labour to respond to their requests, the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA), and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), announced, on August 31, that they would appeal to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB). The appeals argue that the Ministry of Education's "Guide to Re-Opening Ontario's Schools" does not take every reasonable precaution to protect workers, as required by Section 25(2)(h) of the OHSA. This section of the Act says that an employer must "take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker."

While the OLRB refused to hear the unions' evidence on the basis that it has no jurisdiction to do so, the OLRB Chair, in his ruling, lectures the unions that the Ministry of Education did not agree with the union proposals at the Provincial Working Group -- Health and Safety, which is the body mandated to "review health and safety issues with system-wide application and make recommendations to the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labour" or in any other forum.

He also states that as far as the Ministry of Education's guide that was made available to schools and school boards is concerned, the Ministry did not represent it as a document that was to conform to the requirements of the OHSA. He said that the OHSA was never intended as a vehicle for a system-wide or province-wide remedy.

Standards That the Unions Are Seeking

The provincial standards that the unions are demanding include:

- That class size be set at 15-20 students, wherever two-metre distancing cannot be maintained in a given classroom.

- That cohorts for student-to-staff contacts be set at 50 and be applicable not just to students but also staff.

- That the "School and University Reopening Standards" of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers be set as the minimum standards for ventilation in schools and other education

- That the busing and transportation standards  of the Ontario Public Services Health and Safety Association be set as the minimum standards for busing and other forms of student transportation.

- That all students be required to wear non-medical masks at all times during the school day, subject to reasonable exceptions for medical accommodations, as masking is fundamental to safety in this pandemic, and

- That all standards ordered by the Ministry of Labour in respect to COVID-19 be reviewed every month for continuing compliance with the best science available at the time and be replaced by more stringent standards as the science dictates.

Challenges Facing Working People

Based on the October 1 ruling from the OLRB, the teachers and education workers have no recourse to get province-wide standards through the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Education, the state agencies pertaining to the health and safety of the people, or the OHSA itself.

This reveals that our so-called democratic institutions do not enable, but block working people from participating in making decisions about the affairs of society. By fighting to be involved in setting standards for safe schools during this pandemic, teachers and education workers have brought to light something very fundamental about the way our society is organized to marginalize and disempower the polity. Things need to change.

Ontario educators are not alone. In Quebec, the Superior Court recently defeated an application by the Autonomous Teachers' Federation (FAE) for an interim injunction to force the Quebec government to inform the FAE and Quebeckers of its plan for accelerated COVID-19 testing in the school system because there is no such plan! The Court goes further by supporting the claim of the government that such a plan for the school system would favour the teachers at the expense of rapid testing for all and would force a reallocation of resources that would be detrimental to other sectors of society, especially its most vulnerable members.

What Do Workers Make of This?

Our society is in a serious crisis. The pandemic is not even the half of it. Blocking the people from participating in making decisions that affect society, such as how to safely reopen and operate schools, exacerbates the already existing crisis of confidence and credibility of our unrepresentative democracy and its institutions. Once truth about a situation is revealed, it cannot be erased from our collective consciousness. There is no going back. Profound changes are needed.


1. Ontario Labour Relations Board Case No: 1228-20-HS; Case No: 1236-20-HS; Case No: 1239-20-HS; and Case No: 1240-20-HS

(Photos: OSSTF, J. Campbell)

This article was published in

Number 69 - October 13, 2020

Article Link:
Ontario Labour Relations Board Dismisses Unions' Case: Teachers' Unions Fight for Right to Participate in Deciding Appropriate COVID-19 Measures


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