After years of resistance, Legal Aid Ontario has agreed to come to the bargaining table to negotiate with its staff lawyers’ chosen union, the Society of Energy Professionals.
Legal aid lawyers, who mounted an intense campaign on the LAO and the Ontario government in recent months, are calling this move a “significant breakthrough.” In the days ahead, the lawyers say the union and LAO will enter into negotiations they hope will end in the recognition of the Society of Energy Professionals as their bargaining agent.
“It’s a huge step,” says legal aid lawyer Dana Fisher. “It’s a step that they’ve refused to take until now.”
Legal Aid Ontario says it has agreed to meet with union reps to find out what its employees are looking for.
“At this point, we have agreed to meet with representatives of the Society of Energy Professionals to discuss arranging a vote to determine LAO’s staff lawyers’ wishes with regard to representation,” said Graeme Burk, spokesman for LAO. “We are taking this step because LAO wants to know conclusively what our staff lawyers want with respect to representation.”
Although her colleagues’ efforts are “finally paying off,” Fisher is careful not to declare victory just yet. “Saying that they’ll speak to us is a great first step and we’re really excited about it, but it’s certainly not the end of the road until we have something in writing,” she says.
Unlike most other workers, lawyers are not included in the Ontario Labour Relations Act. In order to unionize, they must obtain voluntary recognition from their employer. In 2013, LAO rejected its lawyers’ bid to unionize, saying it does not have a legal obligation to voluntarily recognize a trade union to represent its staff.
Later, LAO said it respects employees’ right to associate and is willing to consider associations other than the union the employees want to join. Legal aid expressed concerns about the fact that the Society of Energy Professionals is a trade union. But the lawyers were adamant, saying they’ve chosen the union because it is an “experienced and well-resourced association/union to mount an effective campaign.”
Since then, legal aid lawyers continued to pressure legal aid and the Ontario government, including the launch of a Charter challenge against them. They ratcheted up their efforts this summer, staging several demonstrations outside Liberal party fundraiser events and Premier Kathleen Wynne’s constituency office.
“I have never seen a group of workers as determined and dogged in their pursuit of collective bargaining rights as these Legal Aid lawyers,” said union president Scott Travers in a press release. “I am confident this breakthrough would not have been possible without the pressure Legal Aid lawyers and the Society exerted on the Wynne government and Legal Aid Ontario with the help of allies like the Ontario Federation of Labour.”
“Though we will move toward a normal, respectful bargaining relationship with Legal Aid Ontario, we will continue this public campaign until an agreement to recognize these lawyers' collective bargaining rights is final," Travers also said.