Supreme Court Rules That Labour Rights Are Charter Rights

By Cameron, Duncan | CCPA Monitor, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview
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Supreme Court Rules That Labour Rights Are Charter Rights


Cameron, Duncan, CCPA Monitor


LABOUR RIGHTS RECOGNIZED:

Fundamental labour rights, pursued historically and recognized under international conventions, must be respected in Canada, according to the highest court in the land. In a judgment rendered June 8, the Supreme Court of Canada reversed itself and recognized that freedom of association includes the right to collective bargaining.

Collective bargaining complements and promotes the values expressed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, according to this major judgment affirming that the role of trade unions cannot be repressed "in a free and democratic society."

The Supreme Court decision struck down key provisions of Bill 29, introduced five years ago by the government of British Columbia as part of a plan to contract out and privatize that province's health services. The decision not only overturned lower court judgments, but, more importantly, it also re-wrote the Supreme Court's own jurisprudence on key issues of labour rights.

The Canadian labour movement can now look forward to a brighter future in pursuing collective bargaining rights on fundamental workplace issues. The Court states firmly that collective bargaining is necessary for workers "to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work."

Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: a) freedom of conscience and religion; b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and d) freedom of association."

However, in a crucial trilogy of labour cases decided by the Supreme Court in 1987, five years after the adoption of the Charter, freedom of association was severely limited. Justices argued that, through association, individuals could protect their rights as individuals, but did not gain any additional rights, such as the right to bargain collectively.

Choosing its words carefully, the Surpreme Court in June overruled its labour trilogy's exclusion of collective bargaining as a necessary part of freedom of association: "None of the reasons provided by the majorities in those cases survive scrutiny."

The Justices cited the testimony of a former Liberal Minister of Justice, who admitted that the Charter's right of association had been intended to include the right to collective bargaining, even though it was not made explicit.

The majority decision, six justices concurring and one partially dissenting, draws upon the work of labour historians, labour law specialists, and government commissions to outline the context for the Court's explicit recognition of collective bargaining as a fundamental freedom.

While the Hospital Employees' Union and the British Columbia Government Employees Union can celebrate a victory for all Canadian workers, the (mostly) women who lost salaries, benefits, severance pay, and jobs through layoffs were not offered remedies by the Court decision.

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Supreme Court Rules That Labour Rights Are Charter Rights
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