From LFPress.com, Randy Richmond, London Free Press, 29 Apr 2011.
AGRICULTURE: The Supreme Court says union organization is not covered by freedom of association
Organized labour in Canada has suffered a serious blow from a Supreme Court ruling Friday that prevents Ontario farm workers from joining a union, says a labour law expert.
“Up until now unions have thought the constitution would protect them,” University of Western Ontario associate dean of law Michael Lynk said.
Facing a decline in membership and attacks from provincial legislation, unions probably thought “the constitution was their last great hope.”
But Friday the court ruled the rights of unions to organize isn’t entrenched in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Lynk said.
That suggests the high court would also rule a union’s rights to collectively bargain and to strike – challenged in several pieces of legislation across Canada – aren’t entrenched in the charter, he added.
“Unions thought a liberal reading of the Charter was either going to protect them or slow down provincial legislation they considered to be anti-labour. That hope is diminished in the aftermath of this particular ruling.”
The Supreme Court ruled Ontario’s law preventing the province’s 80,000 farm workers from joining a union doesn’t contravene their right to freedom of association under the Charter.
One of the nine justices offered a dissenting opinion.
The ruling ended, in the courts at least, a decade-long battle by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union of Canada.
“The Supreme Court of Canada has abandoned agricultural workers in Ontario in their plight for dignity and respect. Quite frankly, we are shocked,” Wayne Hanley, UFCW president, said.
The union may turn next to the fall Ontario election to pressure politicians to protect workers.
“We will be lobbying the government to enact legislation,” Hanley said.
The UFCW contends Ontario’s Agricultural Employees Protection Act – the law in the dispute – doesn’t protect farm workers.
It allows an employees association to raise concerns with employers. It doesn’t allow workers to join a union or force employers to negotiate with workers.
Without union protection, most farm workers are too afraid of being fired to raise concerns about dangerous conditions, the UFCW says.
Workers in large factory farms face physical and mental abuse and long hours for low pay, said Mindy Leng, who was fired from Rol-Land Farms, a mushroom factory in Kingsville in 2003 after she and many co-workers signed union cards.
“The condition we work in . . . is a horrible environment,” Leng said. “Our employers do not take care of us or protect us, so that is why we went to a union. . . . Right now a lot of farm workers are very very disappointed.”
Ontario’ Agriculture Minister Carol Mitchell applauded the court ruling and said the existing law provides enough protection.
Farm owners fear giving workers the right to organize would result in higher costs and strikes that disrupt food production.
1987 to 1992: Three mushroom farm workers killed on the job in Ontario.
1993: NDP government creates law giving farm workers right to join union.
1995: Tory government repeals law.
2001: Supreme Court orders government to create new law.
2008: Ontario court rules new law unconstitutional. Province appeals.
2011: Supreme Court sides with province, says law doesn’t contravene Charter of Rights.