Seizing the advantage

Naking the Supreme Court collective bargaining ruling work for working people

In a landmark ruling on June 8 of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms constitutionally protects collective bargaining as part of its guarantee of freedom of association.

There is nothing particularly radical or extreme about the Court’s findings. “What is protected is simply the right of employees to associate in a process of collective action to achieve workplace goals. If the government substantially interferes with that right, it violates . . . the Charter,” the Court ruled. For countless workers across Canada who have been stripped of their freedom of association rights, however, the implications of this ruling are very significant indeed.

One group that has long been struggling against the denial of its freedom of association rights is Ontario’s part-time college workers—and our struggle could serve as a model for other workers in similar circumstances.

In November 2006, with the funding and support of our sisters and brothers in our associated trade union, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), part-time college workers formed OPSECAAT, the Organization of Part-time and Sessional Employees of the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology, in order to right an historical wrong. Since 1975, the provincial government’s Colleges Collective Bargaining Act and related legislation have effectively denied part-time college workers the ability to bargain collectively.

The latest estimates put the number of part-time college workers in Ontario at close to 20,000: 10,416 teachers and 8,784 support staff, to be exact.

Ontario’s colleges are chronically underfunded. The province ranks ninth out of the 10 provinces in funding per full-time college student. Because the law does not afford us the ability to organize, part-time college workers have become a source of cheap labour that literally subsidizes the Ontario community college system.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, however, part-time college workers suddenly had the force of law behind us. In a June 11th media release, we demanded that the McGuinty government amend the legislation to make it consistent with the Court’s ruling.

The momentum shifted almost immediately. We leased a minivan and shrink-wrapped it with the message: “Respect the Charter!” We were prepared to take our message to every government announcement and political event in the province up to election day on October 10. From July on, we got to about two events a week.

On July 24, we crashed a Liberal nomination meeting at a church in Scarborough at which Premier McGuinty was the guest speaker. His aides were clearly spooked by the “Respect the Charter!” minivan parked in front of the church entrance. We asked for a meeting with the Premier and he gave us five minutes. “We want the right to bargain collectively, Mr. Premier, and the Supreme Court is on our side,” I told him. “You can fight us in the courts, but that would be a shameful waste of taxpayers’ money.”

“You want a political solution.”

“We would prefer a political solution.”

When I greeted George Smitherman, Minister of Health and Long Term Care, at a press conference launching a new community health centre in London on August 23, he asked if we were planning to attend every event until election day. “Only if you want me to, George. Or your government can respect the Charter and give part-time college workers the right to bargain collectively.” He nodded slowly and walked off.

A week later, on August 30, the government gave in. It publicly announced that it intended to fully recognize the right of part-time college workers to bargain collectively, and appointed a respected labour relations practitioner, Kevin Whitaker, to undertake a full review of the current legislation.

It was two months since the OPSECAAT “Respect the Charter!” minivan had hit the road. It was less than three months since the Supreme Court decision came down.

At first blush, there seems to be a caveat to this success story, which is that Whitaker will not have completed his review until after the October 10 Ontario provincial election. While the commitment of the Liberals to recognize the right of part-time college workers is unconditional, it is hard to predict with any certainty how a Conservative government would react to Whitaker’s report. (Note: As of press time, the election results were not yet known.)

In a sense, however, it really doesn’t matter. The Supreme Court decision will stand no matter who forms the next government of Ontario. Based on the ruling that there is a constitutional right to collective bargaining, OPSEU is about to embark on a massive membership drive in community colleges across Ontario for the purpose of securing bargaining rights with the employer on a volunteer basis—at least at first. In the final analysis, the end of our struggle to have our right to bargain collectively has already been written.

As Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Mr. Justice Louis LeBel noted in their decision, “The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work.”

There are, we know all too well, countless other groups who have similarly had their right to collectively bargain taken from them—from construction workers in Alberta, to health care workers in B.C., to migrant farm workers across the country, to part-time provincial government employees in New Brunswick.

Now is the time to act on this landmark decision to ensure that all workers can exercise their right to form unions and bargain collectively.

Roger Couvrette has been president of OPSECAAT since its founding meeting in November 2006.