(July 19, 2007) -- 'The Supreme Court ruling on collective bargaining rights is definitely a victory worth celebrating. But with so much at stake, we cannot and must not stop to rest or relax for long.'
National surveys consistently confirm that hundreds of thousands of workers in Canada want to join unions and to bargain collectively. They recognize that these rights are vital to promoting broadly shared economic prosperity, social justice and strong democracies.
The big problem, however, is that when workers try to unionize and bargain collectively they face a storm of opposition from governments and employers. The private sector especially is notorious for resorting to threats, intimidation and coercion when workers try to exercise these rights. It wasn’t that long ago when Wal-Mart Canada actually closed a store after workers formed a union and attempted to bargain collectively.
In some cases, like part-time college workers in Ontario, specific groups of workers are legislatively banned from bargaining collectively. In other cases, workers have achieved a collective agreement only to have the government impose legislation that rips it up and unilaterally imposes new terms and conditions of employment. In fact, as part of our Labour Rights are Human Rights campaign, the National Union published a study citing over 170 pieces of legislation that have denied or undermined labour rights in Canada since 1982.
The good news is that the ability of employers and governments to trample on labour rights has been greatly curtailed by a recent landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. In a judgment issued June 8, 2007 the country's top court ruled that collective bargaining is a constitutional human right protected under the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The court also stated that collective bargaining complements, promotes and enhances fundamental Canadian values such as equality, dignity and democracy. It noted that collective bargaining is a fundamental aspect of Canadian society which predates the establishment of labour relations regimes and that it existed well before the Charter recognized the right to association.
The ruling arises from a 2002 case in which the Liberal government of British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell arbitrarily amended the Collective Agreements of thousands of health care workers. Many members of the British Columbia Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU/NUPGE) and other unions saw their jobs shifted to private companies that offered much less in the way of pay, benefits and job security. Therefore, according to the Supreme Court of Canada, the actions of the B.C. government were both illegal and immoral.
The ruling will have a positive legacy; there’s no doubt about it. Working people can now look forward to a brighter future in pursuing collective bargaining rights on fundamental workplace issues. The legal recognition that labour rights are human rights can and will be drawn upon by workers to form unions and to bring employers to the bargaining table. And from now on, restrictions on or attempts to deny collective bargaining will be more difficult for employers to justify.
That being said, we must not forget that the court ruling isn’t something that simply fell from Mars onto Earth. It is the result of, and a reflection of, a long struggle by creative and determined working men and women across this country. The campaign being led by NUPGE and others has played a key role in this struggle.
My point here is that we can’t simply sit around and wait for the benefits of the court ruling to trickle down into a stronger, larger labour movement. Yes, the ruling puts us on more solid ground. But there are still a lot of challenges and challengers that we have to confront in order to realize the positive benefits of the ruling.
We have to remember that we’re running a marathon, and if we slow down to a crawl, we may never reach the finish line. That’s why it’s so important that we continue our Labour Rights are Human Rights campaign without breaking stride.
Furthermore, like many things in life, the devil is in the details and the court ruling will live or die in the little moments. The labour movement will need to coordinate its efforts to ensure that the future legal parameters flowing from this ruling favour working families rather than employers.
It’s also essential that the labour movement develop a strategic outreach and organizing plan to encourage workers to exercise their constitutional right to form unions and bargain collectively.
Finally, it’s vital that the labour movement continue its political action to mobilize voters to replace anti-worker governments with political leaders who will champion the interests of working families.
The court ruling is definitely a victory worth celebrating. But with so much at stake, we cannot and must not stop to rest or relax for long.