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Appeal Court set to hear Ontario ban on farm unions violates worker rights 

TORONTO — Farm workers barred from unionizing are set to tell Ontario's highest court that the ban violates their rights and should be thrown out as unconstitutional.

In an age of factory farms, they say, workers should be able to bargain collectively.

"They need that right so that they can be like other employees in this province and have an effect on the formulation of their working conditions," said lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo, who is acting for the farm hands.

The long-running battle, involving the United Food and Commercial Workers union and tens of thousands of some of the country's lowest paid, most vulnerable workers, goes before the Court of Appeal on Tuesday.

For its part, the provincial government argues it simply wants to protect family farms. Work stoppages, it says, could cripple Canada's largest agricultural sector.

The union, in turn, maintains it's not concerned with mom-and-pop outfits.

Most farm workers in the province can be found in mushroom production, greenhouses and hatcheries, which even Ontario's labour relations board has found are "factory-like" and no different from a "typical manufacturing plant."

"While the pastoral image of the small family farm remains evocative, agricultural production in Ontario is increasingly done by large-scale industrial farming operations or agribusiness," the workers' legal submissions note.

The union also says it would accept binding arbitration rather than the right to strike to settle any disputes.

In its filing, Ontario argues the traditional management-union framework was designed for the typical adversarial "Fordist industrial model of production."

That model wouldn't fit the province's roughly 58,000 farms, many of which are small and barely employ outside help, the province says.

Ontario and Alberta are the only provinces that bar agricultural workers from bargaining collectively, a status quo that suits the Ontario Federation of Agriculture just fine.

"The courts should not be telling the legislature how to regulate labour relations on farms," said John Craig, lawyer for the federation, which is intervening in the case.

"We do take exception to the imposition of a collective-bargaining regime which is potentially burdensome and expensive on an industry that is itself in a difficult economic position."

Farm workers in Ontario, many of whom are visible minority immigrants, have never had the right to strike. They did, briefly, gain the right to bargain collectively under the former NDP government of then-premier Bob Rae and the UFCW successfully organized 200 workers at a mushroom factory in Leamington, Ont.

However, the Conservative government under Mike Harris in 1995 immediately reinstated the unionizing ban, prompting appeals that ended at the Supreme Court of Canada, which in 2001 denounced the legislation as discriminatory.

In response, the government under former Tory premier Ernie Eves in 2002 brought in the Agricultural Employees Protection Act, which allows farm workers to join associations, but not to bargain collectively.

The UFCW said that amounted to giving them the right to join a social club, but the current Liberal government maintained the law.

In January 2006, the Ontario Superior Court decided the new act satisfied the earlier Supreme Court ruling, prompting the current appeal.

The appeal also draws on a later ruling from the country's top court last June in a case involving health-care workers in British Columbia.

In that decision, the Supreme Court held that collective bargaining is a constitutional right but Ontario argues that doesn't mean farm workers must have it.





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