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What Happened to Labour Rights?

You'd hardly know collective bargaining is a human right.

By Murray Dobbin 22 Jun 2006 |

Murray Dobbin is an author, commentator and journalist. He is the author of five books and is a former columnist with Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press. He is a board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness and on the advisory council of the Rideau Institute. He lives in Powell River, BC.

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Rally in Victoria last year.
  • Labour Left Out
  • Roy J. Adams
  • Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (2005)

Almost everyone in Canada now understands, and more or less accepts, the notion of human rights. It wasn't always so. The idea has a relatively short history in Canada given that the UN Charter dates from just after the Second World War. Human rights first gained a foothold in our political culture in the early 1970s when provinces established human rights commissions -- agencies that accepted complaints about rights violations and did their best to educate people about what their rights were. Provincial bills of rights were passed -- but it was always possible to repeal them.

But with the establishment in 1981, by Pierre Trudeau, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, human rights were constitutionalized. Canadian politics has not been the same since. The debate about whether the charter was good for democracy or bad raged around that time and is still not over. While some groups made significant progress to end discrimination -- most notably the disabled and gays and lesbians -- the downside of the charter was that corporations were recognized as "persons" under the law and could claim human rights as a result. And the charter is aimed primarily at curbing government abuses.

While many human rights were constitutionally recognized by the charter and protection for them increased, a very old right seems to be eroding at the same time. This is a principal theme of a new CCPA book Labour Left Out: Canada's Failure to Protect and Promote Collective Bargaining as a Human Right by Roy Adams, professor emeritus of the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. The book traces the recent history of Canada's failure to protect and promote this fundamental human right. It is a potent and timely reminder of the ground labour has lost in two decades of neo-liberalism in Canada.

Freedom through bargaining

Ten years ago I did a documentary on democracy and the politics of human rights for CBC's Ideas. One of the people I interviewed still sticks in my mind for his astute comment and warning about "rights politics." Allan Blakeney, formerly the NDP premier of Saskatchewan, pointed out that charters of rights assume "that the only people who interfere with rights are governments, and therefore the charter will restrict governments and nobody else; and that government action always curtails freedom and...never expands freedom. That overstates it a bit but not much."

Blakeney clearly disagreed with this notion and went on to give examples of what he meant by government actions that expand freedom: minimum wage laws, hours of work and other labour standards that protected those workers who had very little bargaining power. He might have added the laws protecting the right to collective bargaining, which are perhaps the most powerful expansion of freedom of any laws, especially if you look at the millions of people they potentially affect.

As governments became more hostile to labour in the 1990s, labour fought back, in part, through the courts. In 1998, a key Supreme Court of Canada decision confirmed, according to Adams, that "employers have a constitutional obligation to recognize and deal with their employees' representatives." But, as it turns out, that and a toonie will get you a cup of coffee. Despite the ruling, and repeated admonishments from the International Labour Organization, of which Canada is a member, Canadian governments, provincial and federal, continue to blatantly violate the laws that say collective bargaining is a human right.

Assault via 'labour flexibility'

Collective bargaining has also historically been referred to as industrial democracy -- the parallel to political democracy. And in Europe that industrial democracy is taken for granted, according to Adams. "The notion of 'social partnership,' promoted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) is the European norm." The norm in Canada (and virtually all other English-speaking developed countries) is exactly the opposite: an open hostility to any collective voice for labour by corporations and complicity by governments. It is the private sector that has suffered most from this hostility. Unionization rates have gone from 30 per cent in the early 1960s to 17.5 per cent today.

Governments in Canada, Australia and New Zealand have all embraced the neo-liberal policy of "labour flexibility" -- a euphemism for the deliberate assault on the bargaining power of workers. Slashing access to EI, gutting welfare programs and deliberately keeping unemployment high, allegedly to fight inflation, severely affect labour's bargaining position.

In addition, of course, governments in Canada now casually interfere with collective bargaining whenever it suits them: 170 times between 1982 and 2004, according to Adams. In Canada, at least, the corporate sector has seen no need to eliminate collective bargaining so long as governments do nothing to promote it. In a political culture like Canada's, where collective bargaining does not have the same popular appeal as other rights, the rights of workers are constantly threatened.

'Anointed by the state'

Adams raises some interesting questions regarding employee representation; specifically, the fact that institutionalized union representation is not the only possibility. For one thing, it relies on the state for its legitimacy and is thus in a dependent relationship with hostile governments. He raises the possibility of returning to an approach used before unions were legal: direct negotiations between an independent association of employees and the employer. Government doesn't enter into it. But that would be quite a leap in Canada where, says Adams, "Only employee organizations that have been anointed by the state are considered to be fully genuine."

What has been the union movement's response to the steady erosion of collective bargaining as a human right? Two unions, the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), launched a campaign in March 2005, to "promote the notion of collective bargaining as a human right" and to pressure government to live up to its legal and international obligations. Other unions had better join them. It will be a long fight.

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee.