What is a ‘work-to-rule’ campaign?

A teacher erases numbers on a blackboard. Stock photo by Getty Images

Ontario’s annus horribilus in education continues with a new disruption this week.

This year has already seen protracted work stoppages at two different universities, a major boycott of the new sex-ed curriculum and three different unions currently on strike.

The headaches continue as teachers kicked off a massive job action this week that sees more than 76,000 teachers begin a work-to-rule campaign.

Fortunately, that’s not as scary as it may sound. You don’t need to keep your kids home. School still continues.

Work-to-rule isn’t a labour stoppage. It’s more of a labour reduction or a slowdown. 

The term “work-to-rule” means employees do the bare minimum of work required by their contract. That would include tactics like refusing to work overtime or perform work-related travel.

It can often involve overly strict adherence to rules — safety standards, for example — in order to drastically slow productivity.

For Ontario teachers, that means they won’t enter comments on report cards, attend staff or ministry meetings, or participate in professional development activities.

They’re still doing some things that would otherwise stop under work-to-rule, such as field trips and extracurricular activities. However, the teachers union said the campaign is “incremental in nature,” with possible future phases of increased labour reductions.

Ontario’s education minister doesn’t appreciate the cryptic hints about upcoming phases though. Liz Sandals wants to change existing legislation to demand the teachers indicate exactly what’s coming.

Currently, the union only has to give five days’ advance notice of a job action, but doesn’t have to specify what that action is, whether it’s work-to-rule or a full-on strike. Of course, that makes things tricky for thousands of parents who need to know if they need alternate care arrangements for their kids. 

Other recent work-to-rule examples include a 2013 campaign by Canadian diplomats who refused to work overtime or answer phones or emails outside of work hours. In 2011, security guards at Toronto’s Pearson airport caused enormous backlogs as they physically searched every carry-on back and “wanded” every single passenger, drastically slowing security screening.

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