It is time to vigorously campaign to expose, resist and reverse the attack on labour rights
The attack on labour rights has a much broader impact than limiting the ability of unions to protect the interests of their members. It weakens democracy, destroys good jobs, produces greater income inequality and threatens the economic and social well-being of ordinary citizens.
The time has come for all citizens to respond. Canadians across the country must demand that our governments address Canada’s human rights deficit. Human rights cannot flourish where workers' rights are not enforced
Here are some basic elements of a national strategy for the labour movement and its progressive allies to defend, promote and strengthen labour rights:
1. Labour Rights are Human Rights
We need to change the public discourse on labour rights by elevating them beyond being just statutory rights. We must reinforce that labour rights are indeed human rights.
We must build on the knowledge and evidence concerning the broader role unions play in strengthening democracy and promoting greater economic equality and the social and economic well-being of all citizens. Unions have been, and continue to be, an important force for democracy, not just in the workplace, but also in the community – locally, nationally, and globally.
It is no coincidence that in countries where there are free and active trade union movements, there are more democratic, transparent, and representative forms of government.
Not only do democracies benefit from unions, so do economies. Beyond the economic benefits provided to workers and their families, unions have historically been an important force in humanizing and democratizing the economies of nations. The erosion of labour rights diminishes our standing as a democracy and threatens the social and economic well-being of citizens.
2. Strategic and coordinated approach to the judicial system
In terms of defending labour rights in the courts, the labour movement needs to take more of a strategic and coordinated approach to legal challenges to restrictive labour laws. We cannot allow ourselves to be passive “observers” of future constitutional challenges by an individual union.
Unions involved in Charter cases and their legal counsel must coordinate future legal challenges in light of these decisions. There needs to be a common understanding by unions and their progressive allies of recent Supreme Court rulings on labour law in terms of their scope, limitations, and impact on future legal challenges involving labour rights in Canada.
The labour movement needs to provide a forum for the brightest legal minds associated with our movement to meet on a regular basis to discuss the potential impact on labour rights and the perceived strength of all Charter challenges in order to strategically co-ordinate the labour movement’s approach to constitutional cases.
3. Coordinated national campaigns against new regressive labour laws
The approach to any future regressive labour law being contemplated or introduced by a government in Canada has to be guided by labour’s old adage: “an injury to one is an injury to all.” We cannot look at a bad law as a single piece of legislation negatively impacting one single sector of our movement in a specific jurisdiction. A bad labour law, regardless of what workers and what jurisdiction it affects, negatively impacts the entire labour movement.
The introduction of a new restrictive labour law, regardless of jurisdiction, must be met by an effective, quick, and coordinated national campaign by the entire labour movement 4. and its allies. We should aim to create public backlash and strong political pressure against the legislation and the government that introduced it.
4. Pressuring governments to comply with international labour law
All governments in Canada are failing in their responsibility under international labour and human rights law to promote and protect workers' rights. The image of Canada within the international community as a country that respects human rights, especially in the area of labour rights, is an illusion. The reality of Canada’s record is quite different: labour rights endorsed so enthusiastically in international forums by Canada have never been fully realized here at home.
Canada has not only a moral, but also a legal obligation to live up to its international commitments as spelled out in those Conventions of the International Labour Organization that Canada has ratified.
5. Ratification of ILO conventions
As dismal as Canada’s record is in failing to abide by the basic freedom of association principles endorsed by the ILO, its record at ratifying ILO conventions is worse. Most of the conventions endorsed so enthusiastically by the Canadian government at the ILO have never been ratified. Of the ILO’s 188 conventions, Canada has ratified only thirty in total and only three of the last thirty conventions developed since 1982.
Canada is one of the few countries in the world that has yet to ratify all eight of the ILO conventions recognized as being fundamental to the rights of human beings at work. The three fundamental ILO conventions that Canada has yet to ratify are: Convention No. 29 – Forced Labour (1930);Convention No. 98 — Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining (1949); and Convention No. 138 – Minimum Age (1973).
The labour movement must become more engaged in lobbying the federal and provincial governments to ratify ILO conventions. We should not accept the hypocrisy of our federal government playing a leadership role at the ILO in developing international labour standards while not being prepared to have them ratified in Canada.
6. Ratification of ILO Convention No. 98 is a priority
More importantly, we know that these international conventions have played, and will continue to play, a major role in the interpretation of Canadian law. As a start, the labour movement should recognize Convention No. 98 – Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining as the number one priority convention for Canada to ratify. Convention No. 98, together with Convention No. 87 – the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, is recognized as covering the basic principles of labour rights throughout the world.
Convention 87 was ratified by Canada in 1972. However, Canada is only one of twenty-three countries that have not ratified Convention No. 98 and one of only three countries to have ratified Convention 87, but not Convention 98 (the other two countries being Mexico and Myanmar). Ratification of this critical convention would provide further guidance to the courts in helping to interpret the legislative intent to the right to collective bargaining as providing all Canadian workers with access to a legislative framework that allows them to exercise their right in an equal and meaningful manner.
7. Changing the discourse on the value of public services and fair taxation
We must place an increased emphasis on making the connection with Canadians between labour rights and a fair and just economy built on tax fairness and a vibrant public sector. We recognize that along with creating greater awareness around labour rights, we need to foster a greater understanding of how the public sector is a critical positive force not only for the well-being of our citizens, but also for our economy as a whole.
With the current global attack on public services and public service unions, now is not the time to go on the defensive for the important services and programs our members deliver. We need to mobilize an aggressive offensive in promoting the value of the work public service workers do.
We also must aggressively talk about the need for greater tax fairness in Canada. The labour movement and its progressive allies must not shy away from talking about taxes. We cannot have a responsible conversation about paying for valuable public services and programs unless we are prepared to address issues of tax fairness. Governments in Canada and most of our political leaders are avoiding engaging Canadians in this conversation. For the most part, they have not presented citizens with honest choices but have instead limited public debate around taxation policy based on corporate ideology.
8. Mobilize around our common good and our common wealth
Labour and its progressive allies need to mobilize around our common good and our common wealth. We need to create a movement, not a coalition, if we are going to win this battle of ideas and values. The movement must be unified around the fundamental progressive principle of equality. It cannot be just about single issues such as labour rights, or environmentalism, or education, or health care, or peace. It must seek to change the political discourse by engaging Canadians in a conversation about the moral mission of governments to reduce inequality through strong labour rights for all workers, a fair tax system and the provision of quality public services.
We must restore balance to the scales of economic and social justice. The only democratic counterweight to the power of corporations and the super wealthy is an agenda that supports and promotes strong labour rights and economic justice. These are key components to a functioning democracy and an equitable and sustainable economy. The labour movement in Canada and its progressive allies must continue to make the connection between these issues and mobilize Canadians around them.