After graduating law school, law students must complete an “articles clerkship” before being called to the bar and becoming a fully licensed lawyer. I have been fortunate enough to be the OSSTF/FEESO Student-at-Law for 2022-2023 and have been in this position since August 2022.
As the Student-at-Law, I work in OSSTF/FEESO Provincial Office’s Member Protection department supporting the three in-house legal counsel, Heather Alden, Susan Luft, and Jesse Gutman. My work falls primarily into three categories—representing Members at their regulatory colleges like the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) or College of Early Childhood Educators (CECE), assisting with grievance arbitrations, and finally, conducting legal research.
My brief time in the Member Protection department has highlighted the importance of legal support in the day-to-day operation of the union.
The legal process often feels like a labyrinth when Members encounter it face-to-face for the first time. It can be daunting to suddenly have allegations brought against them by their regulatory college or have an upcoming arbitration where their employment and livelihood are affected. For many, the only frame of reference are legal dramas on TV that emphasize the drama and not so much the legal. While entertaining, these shows only exacerbate the stress by mystifying and glorifying the law. Fortunately, Members have the backing of an experienced team in the Members Protection department that can decode this opaque legal process.
Legal support is exactly that— support. The labour movement is inherently worker-led and places the voices of workers first. Within that movement, unions and their lawyers seek to address the power imbalances between the employer and workers to provide space for workers to coalesce and improve their working conditions. My role as an articling student and within the legal department is to empower the workers through the law by holding other parties accountable.
For example, while the OCT or CECE’s duty is to “serve and protect the public interest,” mine is to represent Members and hold the regulatory college responsible in establishing misconduct in every allegation brought forward. A Member ought not to be punished for allegations that have not been proven.
Similarly, in grievance arbitrations, employers ought to duly follow their obligations as set out in the collective agreements that our bargaining teams have carefully negotiated for. You have rights as OSSTF/FEESO Members that are outlined in your collective agreements and in legislation. When school boards infringe on those rights, your local union representatives may invoke the legal process by filing grievances. If the union local and school board are unable to resolve the matter, the grievance is referred to the Member Protection Work Group, where staff at OSSTF/FEESO Provincial Office review whether these cases have merit to go to arbitration. Throughout this process, we rely on the parameters of the law to protect your rights.
The legal department by its very nature operates in support of the labour movement. Labour law is primarily governed by the Labour Relations Act. The name says it all— unlike in civil law or criminal cases, labour law is unique in that there is an ongoing relationship between the parties. At its best, the force of the law is not noticeable as both parties work together to achieve the common goal of a harmonious and safe workplace. There is a forward thinking, long-term vision that promotes a positive work environment. However, at its worst, the weight and protection of the law (backstopped by the legal department) is necessary to ensure that an employer cannot flagrantly disregard your rights.