Supreme Court declares striking a basic human right | National Union of Public and General Employees

Supreme Court declares striking a basic human right

“This is a great day for all of us. Our chief justices understand that unions matter to our country and our communities, and they’ve made sure that Canadian politicians will no longer be able to so easily strip Canadians of their union rights,” says NUPGE National President James Clancy. 

Ottawa (30 Jan. 2015) — National President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) James Clancy is joining Canadians across the country as they celebrate the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling that all workers have the constitutional right to strike.

“This is a great day for all of us,” said Clancy. “Our highest court has accepted the long-standing and widely accepted international principle that the right to strike is a basic human right. Our chief justices understand that unions matter to our country and our communities, and they’ve made sure that Canadian politicians will no longer be able to so easily strip Canadians of their union rights.”

Case revolved around "essential services" in Saskatchewan

The Supreme Court ruling comes in response to a case filed in 2008 by a coalition of Saskatchewan unions, including the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union (SGEU/NUPGE) protesting the provincial government’s unilateral declaration that wide swaths of public sector workers provided “essential services” and were therefore unable to go on strike.

In its decision, the Supreme Court resoundingly rejects the government’s power to unilaterally declare workers essential and thereby strip their right to strike. “Public sector employees who provide essential services undoubtedly have unique functions which may argue for a less disruptive mechanism [than strikes] when collective bargaining reaches an impasse, but they do not argue for no mechanism at all,” wrote Justice Rosalie Abella in the decision. “Because Saskatchewan’s legislation abrogates the right to strike for a number of employees and provides no such alternative mechanism, it is unconstitutional.”

The decision goes on to lay out a strict process governments must observe when deciding which public sector workers provide “essential services,” and it guarantees that workers have a way to dispute the governments’ decisions through binding arbitration.

Broad, positive implications for workers' rights

But the January 30 decision will also have much broader and positive implications for workers’ rights and workplace justice in Canada by clearly declaring for the first time that the right to strike is a basic human right protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The right to strike is not merely derivative of collective bargaining, it is an indispensable component of that right,” wrote Justice Abella in the decision. “It seems to me to be the time to give this conclusion constitutional benediction.”

Collective bargaining supports "human dignity, equality, liberty"

Clancy says the court clearly recognizes that unions are about much more than simply bargaining wages and benefits. “The Supreme Court understands that the very health of our communities and our country depends on our freedom to join together in groups and speak our minds freely,” says Clancy, pointing to a section of the decision in which Justice Abella notes that meaningful collective bargaining supports “the values of human dignity, equality, liberty, respect for the autonomy of the person and the enhancement of democracy.”

Indeed, the decision is just the latest in a line of Supreme Court decisions over the past decade that have served to bolster workers’ rights in the country. Those decisions, including the B.C. Health Services decision in 2007 and the RCMP decision earlier in January 2015, affirmed workers’ Charter rights to join and participate in unions. 

“Clearly,” wrote Justice Abella in this most recent decision, “the arc bends increasingly towards workplace justice.”

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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