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Supreme Court ruling opens the way to Ontario farm worker unions

OTTAWA, June 8, 2007 - The campaign to allow Ontario farm workers to form unions for the purposes of collective bargaining has been given a huge boost by a decision handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada upholding collective bargaining as an inherent constitutional right under the Freedom of Association provisions of the Charter of Rights of Freedoms.

The ruling released Friday by the Supreme Court was in the wake of an appeal filed by the unions representing British Columbias health care workers whose rights to collective bargaining were undermined by the B.C. government in 2002 when the province passed legislation voiding certain provisions of their contracts.

The B.C. unions supported their argument with a precedent-setting decision known as Dunmore v. Ontario (Attorney General), [2001] 3 S.C.R. 1016 - when in 2001 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of UFCW Canada's challenge that the Ontario Conservative government of Mike Harris violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by prohibiting farm worker unions by excluding agricultural workers from the Ontario Labour Relations Act (OLRA).

In upholding the B.C. health workers' appeal, the latest decision by the Supreme Court stated, "Freedom of association guaranteed by s. 2(d) of the Charter includes a procedural right to collective bargaining&. the protection of collective bargaining under s. 2(d) is consistent with and supportive of the values underlying the Charter and the purposes of the Charter as a whole.Recognizing that workers have the right to bargain collectively as part of their freedom to associate reaffirms the values of dignity, personal autonomy, equality and democracy that are inherent in the Charter."

The ruling is good news for B.C. health care workers but also for Ontario agricultural workers, who in spite of the Dunmore ruling in 2001, continue to be prohibited from collective bargaining under Ontario's Agricultural Employees Protection Act (AEPA) which was introduced in 2003. Under the AEPA workers can only form associations, not unions.  They can take their concerns to their employer but the employer is not obliged to respond at all or to bargain in good faith.

Because of those restrictions UFCW Canada launched a new Charter challenge in 2003 citing the AEPA's exclusion of collective bargaining rights as unconstitutional. Friday's Supreme Court ruling would appear to support that challenge. In the wake of the latest Supreme Court ruling, Wayne Hanley, UFCW Canada's National President has called on the Ontario government, "to resolve this matter as soon as possible."

"Todays ruling by the Supreme Court," said Hanley, "makes it very clear that Freedom of Association absolutely includes the right to collective bargaining, and the obligation on employers to bargain in good faith. Agricultural workers can no longer be discriminated against and the time to acknowledge their rights is now."

"The highest court in the land has spoken," said Hanley, "Ontario's agricultural workers are looking to Premier McGuinty to do the right thing as soon as possible by restoring their rights and bringing them back under the Ontario Labour Relations Act including the right to form unions. As for our pending appeal against the AEPA, we hope that matter can be resolved by positive government action instead of through litigation."

  • ufcw [at] ufcw247 [dot] com