Epic fight for farm workers reaches Supreme Court | National Union of Public and General Employees

Epic fight for farm workers reaches Supreme Court

It is because of UFCW that farm workers will soon have the same human rights as all other workers, including their right to join a union and bargain collectively."

James Clancy, national president of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)Ottawa (17 Dec. 2009) – Today marks the beginning of the final chapter in a long struggle by Ontario agricultural workers to regain their fundamental human right to join a union and bargain collectively.

The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) heard arguments today on an appeal from a November 2008 decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in the Fraser v. Ontario case.

It is the final stop for a case that stems from a Charter challenge launched by the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW Canada) on behalf of Ontario agricultural workers who in 1995 had their rights to unionize stripped away by legislation brought in by then Ontario Premier Mike Harris.

The outcome of this case is being watched closely by the entire labour movement with the expectation that it will build upon the historic June 2007 Supreme Court’s decision where Canada’s top justices ruled that the right to collective bargaining is a constitutional right of all Canadians.

James Clancy, national president of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), attended the hearing and pledged his union’s support to the UFCW cause.

“We recognize the importance of this case to UFCW and their members who work on farms across Canada. We also recognize the national significance it will have on the labour rights of all Canadian workers," said Clancy.

Social Justice Solidarity Fund

Clancy used the occasion to present a $15,000 donation from NUPGE’s Social Justice Solidarity Fund to UFCW’s Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA). The contribution supports the valuable work the alliance does on behalf of agricultural workers. AWA operates nine worker support centres across Canada that provide a variety of services to agricultural workers regarding their rights as workers and the benefits to which they are entitled. In 2009 the AWA centres handled thousands of files assisting farm workers with their health, safety, housing, benefit eligibility and workplace rights concerns.

James Clancy and Wayne Hanley at the Supreme Court of Canada hearing on Dec. 17 in Ottawa

Clancy paid tribute to UFCW’s dedication and hard work over the past two decades in protecting and promoting the rights of Canada’s farm workers.

“UFCW Canada has committed a great deal of energy and resources over the years in trying to stop the exploitation of farm workers and ensuring their rights are protected," he said.

“You have been there for farm workers across Canada – in the courts and in the communities where they work. It is because of UFCW that farm workers will soon have the same human rights as all other workers, including their right to join a union and bargain collectively."

In accepting NUPGE’s Social Justice Solidarity Fund donation on behalf of AWA, Wayne Hanley, national president of UFCW Canada stated, “This has always been a question about justice and equality. We very much appreciate that NUPGE has been there over the years standing shoulder to shoulder with UFCW Canada in support of our struggle."

Background on the case

In 1994, the NDP government in Ontario introduced the Agricultural Labour Relations Act (ALRA) granting collective bargaining rights to agricultural workers in Ontario for the first time in history. Within months after the ALRA was proclaimed, UFCW Canada became certified to represent about 200 workers at Highline Mushrooms in Leamington, Ont.

Shortly after the 1995 Ontario election, the Mike Harris Conservative government repealed the ALRA, denying workers at Highline farms and elsewhere the chance to bargain for a collective agreement. UFCW Canada took the Ontario government to court to challenge the exclusion of agricultural workers from collective bargaining as a violation of their freedom of association rights under section 2 (d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Dunmore v. Ontario.

In 2001, the SCC decided that s. 2(d) of the Charter did not allow the Ontario government to exclude agricultural workers from the Labour Relations Act. The SCC did so by finding that s. 2(d) contained a right to organize.

The then Ernie Eves government responded to the decision by enacting the Agricultural Employees Protection Act (AEPA), which provided agricultural workers the right to organize but did not include the associated right to collective bargaining.

The constitutionality of the AEPA was itself challenged by UFCW Canada and upheld by an applications judge.

That decision was appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal (OCA). Before the court could hear the appeal, the SCC released its June 2007 decision, a landmark decision that reversed 20 years of jurisprudence concerning collective bargaining. It found that not only did s. 2 (d) include a right to organize, but that it also included a right to collective bargaining.

Unconstitutional

In light of this pronouncement, the OCA found that the AEPA was unconstitutional.

This current Fraser vs. Ontario case will give the SCC an opportunity to clarify its June 2007 decision with respect to the nature and scope of freedom of association in the context of collective bargaining and whether that right necessarily includes substantive statutory protections as provided by the OCA decision.

NUPGE

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

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