Canada : Announcing the Roy Adams', CIRA “Canadian Freedom of Association Award”
The Canadian Freedom of Association Award: Why and For Whom?
Although I had been researching and teaching international and comparative industrial relations for many years, I first began to pay
serious attention to labour rights as human rights in the early 1990s when McMaster introduced its Theme School on International Justice and Human Rights and I was asked to develop the international labour rights course. What I came to realize more clearly than I had before is that, although we have pledged to respect international human rights law, in many ways Canadian law, custom and practice is out of sync with international law.
Collective bargaining is a fundamental human right, recognized as such by relevant international organizations and most nations of the world but we do not honour it as a human right.
Employers, for example, who would not consider discouraging women from applying for jobs historically held by men, regularly make it known that they will do whatever the law permits to discourage their employees from forming the unions necessary to engage in collective bargaining.
Canada is a member of the International Labour Organization and all members of the ILO have a constitutional responsibility to “promote” collective bargaining but our governments don’t do that. “Promote” means “to encourage to exist or flourish” but our governments do not encourage employees to form unions and bargain collectively. Instead they remain neutral thereby granting legitimacy to the absence of collective bargaining and to the efforts of employers to avoid the process.
Viable, independent unions have a right to negotiate collective agreements and to organize work stoppages in support of their proposals but if they are unable to meet the stringent requirements for becoming “exclusive agent” for all employees in some government recognized bargaining unit, they get no government support. Rather than easy, as international standards say it should be, the road to union representation and a jointly regulated workplace is rocky, dangerous and difficult.
Independent unions have no effective, protected right to strike and although it is clearly contrary to international law, even government certified unions on legal strike have regularly had their strike rights illicitly abrogated by the threat or practice of back to work orders.
And, let me provide one final way that our practices offend international human rights law: advice on how to avoid unions and collective bargaining is regularly on display at management conferences and in the classrooms of Canada’s business schools. University and college teachers do not commonly advocate practices that are clearly illegal, such as firing union activists, but they do teach potential human resource management executives how unions and collective bargaining may be rendered “unnecessary” much as Machiavellian advisors counseled their dictatorial “princes” on the ways to make democracy unnecessary.
This award is intended to encourage those who would expose and oppose these practices.
It might go to a civil society organization that went to extraordinary efforts to increase consciousness of the duty of governments to promote collective bargaining. Better yet, it might go to a political party that made collective bargaining promotion part of its electoral platform. Or still better yet, it might go to a sitting government that put a plan in place to increase collective bargaining coverage, where it is lagging, to over 50, or 60 or 70%.
It might go also to an employer who scrupulously respected international standards by, for example, publicly announcing to his/her employees the firm’s willingness to enter into good faith negotiations leading to a collective agreement with any independent, democratic union with sufficient resources to effectively represent employee interests on a daily basis.
It might go to a union that made active efforts to help workers exercise their right to organize in any format with which they feel comfortable so long as it is not illegal and conforms to international human rights law. It might go to any organization or government deemed to rigorously respect worker strike rights especially in situations when doing so requires political courage.
It might also go to a University Business School that pledged to teach human resource management as practiced in unionized firms on the basis that all firms of any size would be unionized were the enterprise to rigorously respect international human rights law.
And, of course, the award might go to individuals – professors, union leaders, corporate executives, citizens-at large – who made extraordinary efforts to bring about a Canadian industrial relations system consistent with international law.
I’ve not mentioned constitutional law because it must be seen at this point to be, by default, virtually synonymous with international law. In its recent jurisprudence, the Supreme Court of Canada has, to a very large degree, handed down decisions consistent with international law.
I am sure that the committee of the Canadian Industrial Relations Association will be able to identify many more efforts worthy of this award. If over time the award is able to raise consciousness of the disconnect between our current practices and what our practices ought to be, its establishment will be a success.