If there’s ever been a time for us to speak up loudly about why unions matter — and to actively support politicians who do the same — it is now. If we don’t, we will doom our children, grandchildren and perhaps even our great grandchildren to more poverty, discrimination, and authoritarianism.
Ottawa (16 Jan. 2014) – I have been an active trade unionist for my entire career. Over the past 40 years, we’ve achieved incredible victories and suffered heartbreaking setbacks. But over the holiday break, I was reflecting on the movement’s history and its future, and I honestly believe that we stand now on a precipice. What happens over the next two years will likely seal labour’s fate for decades to come. We will emerge either stronger than ever or broken almost beyond repair.
It is an exciting but also terrifying moment. If there’s ever been a time for us to speak up loudly about why unions matter — and to actively support politicians who do the same — it is now. If we don’t, we will doom our children, grandchildren and perhaps even our great grandchildren to more poverty, discrimination, and authoritarianism.
Change is coming on two fronts.
Three important legal cases being heard
The first front is in the courts, where a series of cases being heard over the coming months could fundamentally reshape the ability of Canadian workers to bargain collectively. There are three particularly important cases which the National Union, through its membership in the Canadian Labour Congress, will make arguments as an intervener:
- On February 18, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear a case concerning whether or not RCMP officers have the right to bargain collectively. Right now, federal legislation prevents them from unionizing, but the high court has been asked to rule whether those laws violate their Charter right to free association.
- On February 19, the high court will hear a case concerning the federal government's Bill C-10, the 2009 Expenditure Restraint Act, which severely restricted the right of all unionized federal government employees to engage in collective bargaining by imposing salary caps and prohibiting any form of compensation increases.
- On May 16, the Supreme Court will hear yet another case centred on the Charter right to free association. This one is about whether the Charter guarantees workers' right to strike. It's based on a suit by the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union (SGEU/NUPGE), and other unions in Saskatchewan, who are arguing that their provincial government's sweeping essential-services laws make it effectively impossible for provincial public sector workers to strike.
Together, these three decisions are expected to significantly clarify how much the Charter protects our labour rights. If the court rules in workers' favour, it will be much more difficult for governments to prevent groups of workers from unionizing, or to sap their collective bargaining strength with back-to-work legislation or unilateral essential services legislation. If the high court rules against these workers, the road ahead for all workers will become significantly more rocky, potentially paving the way for a direct assault.
Another court case that warrants our attention is happening in Manitoba. The well-funded and openly anti-union group, Merit Contractors (the company behind two recent private members' bills in Parliament – C-377 and C-525 – which would significantly weaken unions) is arguing that the freedom of association should also include the freedom not to associate. In other words, they are asking the courts to rule that employees don't have to pay union dues even if their contract is bargained and administered by a union. It's a case that's still in its early days, but it's a clear sign that the fundamentals of Canada's labour law are coming under direct attack.
Union members may not be able to influence what happens in the courts, but in politics, we can make ourselves heard
As union members, we don't have much of a role in what happens in the courts. But we have a tremendous role to play in what happens on the second front where change is occurring: politics. We must gird ourselves to fight in this arena because, despite the mounting scandals, politicians funded by and friendly to corporations continue to succeed.
I believe the success of these politicians is more a reflection of many Canadians’ disengagement from politics than indication of widespread support for their politics and policies. During the Fairness Express bus tour through Atlantic Canada last fall, for example, we met and spoke with thousands of people and very few of them were ardent supporters of Stephen Harper or his conservative counterparts at the provincial level.
Nevertheless, many conservatives are in power — with others, like Tim Hudak in Ontario, threatening from the wings — and they are preparing to use that power to enact right to work laws here in Canada, laws that might even be more damaging to our rights as workers and citizens than a ruling by the Supreme Court.
We must play an active role in politics to defeat those who wish to turn back our labour and equality rights
It is imperative that we stop them, but it won’t be easy. Their rhetoric is seductively simple and seems to promise something we all want: freedom. Of course, we understand that the only real freedom these laws offer is to large corporations in pursuit of outsized profits.
And so at every opportunity, we must speak up for unions. They are fair, inclusive, democratic, and progressive. And for the first time in my entire career, they are at real risk of being lost. If we let that happen, all Canadians — whether they are members of a union or not — will suffer.
NUPGE 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