Ontario’s four major teacher unions are launching separate legal challenges against a provincial cap on public sector wage increases, arguing that the legislation amounts to a “direct attack” on their collective bargaining rights.

The legislation, which was passed last month, limits salary increases across the public sector to an annual rate of one per cent over the next three years.

The government has argued that the legislation is needed in order to help it meet its deficit reduction targets but the unions say that it amounts to an attack on their collective bargaining rights.

The unions have also said that a one per cent wage increase is essentially a pay cut, since it fails to keep up with the rate of inflation (approximately two per cent).

“The point of the challenge is that when we sit down to bargain we bargain through discussion and dialogue. This government is choosing to bargain through regulation and legislation,” Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association President Liz Stuart told reporters during a press conference at Queens Park.

“By attempting to legislate unilateral limits on compensation growth the government is turning its back on the collective bargaining process,” added Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario President Sam Hammond. “For ETFO, this legislation is a direct affront to bargaining rights and the education profession.”

The launch of the legal challenges comes during a time of escalating job action in the province that has included work-to-rule campaigns and in the case of Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) - one-day strikes.

The unions behind the challenges say that the provincial wage-cap legislation violates two sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteeing freedom of expression and freedom of association. They say that it also goes against the duty of the Crown to bargain in good faith.

Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, however, dismissed that charge while speaking with reporters on Thursday morning.

He said that the legislation is “fair and reasonable” and that he wouldn’t have introduced it if he didn’t “think it was defendable in the courts.”

“Any serious attempt to improve the province’s finances must include public sector compensation because it represents approximately half of all expenditures, totalling $720 billion a year. In other words a one per cent raise on public sector compensation represents an additional cost of $720 million a year,” he said.