October 2006: Workers Unprotected

Our gov’ts refuse to see labour rights as human rights
October 1, 2006

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 passed bills of rights and set up human rights commissions--agencies that accept complaints about rights violations and do their best to educate people about what their rights are.

Then, in 1981, with the establishment by Pierre Trudeau of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, human rights were constitutionalized. Some groups—most notably the disabled and gays and lesbians--have since made significant progress to end discrimination. But, at the same time, a very old right has been eroded. This is the principal theme of a recent 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 neoliberalism in Canada.

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, a former 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 protect workers who have 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 enshrine collective bargaining as a human right.

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% in the early 1960s to 17.5% today.)

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

In addition, of course, governments in Canada now routinely interfere with collective bargaining whenever it suits them: 170 times between 1982 and 2004, according to Adams. 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.

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 is Vancouver writer and a CCPA research associate and Board member. This piece has appeared in TheTyee.ca)