TORONTO — The constitutional bargaining rights of public sector workers are not infringed by Ontario’s wage cap law, the province told the court Monday.
Groups representing hundreds of thousands of public sector employees are challenging the constitutionality of Bill 124, a law passed in 2019 that limits wage increases to 1% per year for Ontario public service employees as well than for workers in the parapublic sector.
The case began last week and heard from unions representing civil servants, teachers, nurses and university professors among others.
They argue that the law suppressed meaningful collective bargaining, thereby violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The province, for its part, argues that the Charter only protects the negotiation process and not the result.
“That’s what the law does, it constrains an outcome,” argued government lawyer Zachary Green.
“Within this substantial constraint on what your salary may look like at the end of the negotiation, candidates remain free to engage in a meaningful negotiation process.”
The bill’s provisions were to be in effect for three years as new contracts were negotiated, and the Tories had said it was a time-limited approach to help eliminate the deficit.
Mr. Green said that the law does not prevent workers from uniting to bargain, does not prevent negotiations and that remedies, such as strikes or arbitration, are always available.
“These measures are exceptional and limited in time,” he said.
In other words, these are not new standards, they are temporary measures needed to slow the rate of compensation growth.”
After the moderation period, negotiations can resume without a cap, Green said, although there is a provision in the law that does not allow compensation for years of wage caps.
More than 700,000 workers in the province are affected by the law. It does not apply to municipalities, First Nations and Indigenous communities, or for-profit businesses.
Mr. Green argued that the aim of the legislation was to ensure the sustainability of services following the province’s financial problems and to avoid layoffs of public sector workers.
“The moderation period could not achieve its purpose if it allowed unlimited compensation growth,” Green explained.
The province cited a few similar cases to support its arguments.
Zachary Green said the federal Expenditure Restraint Act, which was passed in 2009 in response to the economic crisis, caps the wages of federal workers. In this case, the Charter was also challenged on similar grounds.
The Court of Appeal concluded that the federal law did not substantially interfere with meaningful collective bargaining.
The most recent case arose in Manitoba, where the province’s Court of Appeal found that wage cap legislation for workers in the broader public sector did not violate the Charter.