President’s Commentary: Two steps forward and one step backward for labour rights in 2009

(29 Jan. 2010) - While 2009 provided several significant victories for workers across Canada, governments continued their legislative attack on the rights of labour, says NUPGE president James Clancy.

By James Clancy
National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)

Ottawa - The labour movement achieved a number of significant victories in 2009 that advanced the cause of labour rights in Canada. Many of these were the result of decisions from courts and labour tribunals which are increasingly recognizing the legitimacy of labour rights as human rights. Some of those key advances include:

  • In November, the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) concluded that the ability of workers to exercise their constitutional right to collective bargaining is intrinsically linked to the principle behind the Rand Formula - since all members reap the benefits of a union's accomplishments and should therefore contribute union dues equally.
  • In June, the New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench ruled that a section of the province’s Public Service Labour Relations Act denying casual employees of the government the right to join a union and bargain collectively was unconstitutional.
  • In April, the Ontario Superior Court struck down a section of the RCMP Act, precluding the unionization of RCMP officers, on grounds that it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
  • Also in April, a Quebec arbitrator imposed the first legal union contract in North America on notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart, nearly four years after workers at its retail store in Ste-Hyacinthe voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW Canada).

Building on a landmark ruling

These rulings have reinforced the historic June 2007 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada which established the right of all Canadian workers to form unions and bargain collectively. This right, said the highest court in the land, is a constitutional right protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It is likely the Supreme Court will build on this decision when it rules later this year on Fraser v. Ontario, which represents the final chapter in a long struggle by Ontario agricultural workers to regain their fundamental human right to join a union and bargain collectively.

Unfortunately, the progressive steps that these important legal victories represent have been undermined over the past year by the retrograde actions of several governments still intent on attacking the rights of Canadian workers. 

The labour movement has been forced backward once again because of such legislative attacks. During the year, six labour laws were passed in various parts of Canada that restricted, suspended or denied collective bargaining rights for workers, bringing the total to 189 pieces of restrictive labour legislation enacted by federal and provincial governments since 1982.

Depressing list

The Harper administration led the attack with its budget in January 2009. Hidden in the Conservatives’ Budget Implementation Act (Bill C-10) were separate pieces of legislation undermining the right of workers to free collective bargaining and the right of women to equal pay for work of equal value.

The federal Expenditure Restraint Act imposed caps on salary increases and overrode previously negotiated collective agreements containing wage increases above the imposed salary caps. 

Also, the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act removed the right of public sector workers to collectively file complaints on pay equity with the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC). It also imposed a $50,000 fine on any union that encourages or assists members who file a pay equity complaint.

Several provinces followed. The McGuinty government in Ontario recalled the legislature in January, for a one-day sitting, to pass the York University Labour Disputes Resolution Act (Bill 145), ending an 11-week strike by teaching assistants and contract professors.

In March, the Wall government in Saskatchewan continued its legislative attack on workers' rights by introducing the Construction Industry Labour Relations Amendment Act (Bill 80).

This legislation, which has not yet been proclaimed, has three objectives: to eliminate sectoral bargaining in the construction industry, to allow the establishment of employer-dominated company unions and to greatly reduce the power of unions in the construction industry.

In May, the New Brunswick government passed the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act (Bill 41) which imposed a process for negotiating essential service designation levels for home care and support workers in the province’s private nursing homes in the event of a strike.

Meanwhile, the Campbell government in British Columbia passed its 13th anti-union labour law since it was first elected in 2001, enacting the Ambulance Services Collective Agreement Act (Bill 21). The bill imposed a contract on B.C.’s ambulance paramedics after a seven-month strike.
We cannot rest

The actions of these anti-union governments serve to remind us that we cannot afford to sit around and rely on the courts to defend labour rights.

The judicial victories we have achieved over the past two and half years are important steps forward for labour rights in Canada. But the 189 restrictive labour laws passed in the last 28 years are a strong reminder that labour rights granted by the courts can be easily taken away.

Yes, we have established that the right to join a union and bargain collectively is a constitutional right of all Canadians and that governments will find it more difficult to restrict workers' rights in the future. Nevertheless, we must continue to work diligently to ensure that on-the-job rights of all workers are protected and promoted.

Progressive labour law reform must continue to be central to the labour movement’s political agenda in 2010 and beyond. 


James Clancy
National President


James Clancy is the national president of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), 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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