LABOUR RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS: It's Time to Get Canada Back on the Road to Industrial Democracy

By Adams, Roy J. | CCPA Monitor, February 2007 | Go to article overview
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LABOUR RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS: It's Time to Get Canada Back on the Road to Industrial Democracy


Adams, Roy J., CCPA Monitor


In the 19th century, the countries that now make up Western Europe and North America set out to create democratic societies. The road would be a long one, with ups and downs and reverses. There were two objectives: political democracy and industrial democracy. In the political sphere, the key objective became universal adult suffrage-the vote for all adults regardless of status, property ownership, wealth, race, creed, sex, or colour. By the mid-1970s, that objective was largely achieved, and a new one-the effective protection of basic human rights-had been adopted.

In the economic sphere, after much debate, the key democratic objective became the replacement of autocratic enterprise governance with collective bargaining. By the 1970s, that goal had been largely achieved in much of continental Europe. In North America, however, after making progress during the first half of the 19th century, the movement stalled and, during the past quarter of a century, has been going in reverse. In both Canada and the United States, the industrial democratic tide has turned and collective bargaining is declining.

Today a smaller percent of the labour force has the means to collectively determine its conditions of work than was the case 25 years ago. What is really worrisome about this situation is that it has not been identified as an important public policy issue. Labour rights and the democratic reversal in industry are issues largely absent from the public agenda.

How has this situation come to pass? Two major factors stick out.

The first is government duplicity. On the global level since World War II, human rights have gained stature as essential elements of political democracy. With respect to employment, major efforts to bring about the end of employment discrimination, child labour, and forced labour have been made. Among the employment rights heralded to be human rights are freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively. But much less effort has been expended to protect and promote these rights, especially in developed countries. In Canada this is, to a large extent, the result of claims by governments that the rights of labour are effectively protected and substantially meet international standards. These claims are untrue, but because international standards are not well known or understood, they too often go unchallenged.

Canadian governments have repeatedly pledged their support for the inclusion of collective bargaining in the group of fundamental human rights on which all people should be able to rely. They have promised on the world stage to protect and promote collective bargaining as a human right. But they have reneged on that promise. They have continued to treat collective bargaining at home as an ordinary political issue rather than a human right. With respect to private sector workers, instead of promoting collective bargaining they formally adopt a neutral stance as employers engage in a range of tactics designed to prevent its establishment. Although many unions work hard at organizing the unorganized, they continue to lose ground. Under current conventions, it is nearly impossible to organize fast enough to make up for losses that occur as unionized establishments go out of business or move to unorganized venues.

In the public sector, since the 1960s and 1970s, governments have recognized the right of unions to exist. As a result, union density is much higher than it is in the private sector. In the past two decades, however, governments have engaged in policies designed to cripple the ability of unions to democratically co-determine conditions of work. They have repeatedly imposed conditions unilaterally and have legislated workers on legal strike back to work. In short, although they have permitted unions to exist, they have prevented them from carrying out their democratic functions. For this behaviour they have been repeatedly condemned by the ILO.

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