Elaine Bernard of Harvard University opens international labour rights symposium
Ottawa (19 Nov. 2008) - Labour rights are meaningless without unions to give them life, says a Harvard Law School expert who was the lead-off speaker Wednesday night at a landmark Labour Rights are Human Rights International Symposium in Ottawa.
Elaine Bernard, executive-director of the Labor and Worklife Program (LWP) at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., said the need to make labour rights real is so pressing that governments, employers and the courts should allow workers to join unions without signing union cards, or voting to do so, in majority numbers.
|'Labour Rights Are Human Rights'|
|Elaine Bernard, Harvard||Larry Brown, NUPGE|
|John Staple, CTF||Emily Noble, CTF|
|Kevin Corporon, UFCW Canada||Dave Griffin, CPA|
If other rights in society are accorded to citizens regardless of whether they have majority support, why not take the same approach with labour rights, she asked.
"The inclusion of economic rights as fundamental human rights demands that we go further than simply saying that the state, employers and courts should 'allow' workers, citizens and communities to form organizations to attempt to win contracts, legislation and rights. Rather, these institutions should be promoting organization and just and equitable outcomes," she argued.
2007 Supreme Court ruling
Bernard praised the Supreme Court of Canada for its landmark 2007 ruling recognizing that collective bargaining rights are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Yet union strength across Canada has been declining in recent years, she noted. The number of workers belonging to unions has slipped below 30% and the impact on society as a whole has been significant, she argued.
"Rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to form unions and bargain collectively, are key underpinnings of a democratic society. Unions as institutions and union members as skilled organizers (have) provided inspiration for many social movements," Bernard said.
"Without a union as a vehicle for collective voice and action, individual workers are powerless. How can workers spend eight hours a day or more in workplaces, where they have no right, legal or otherwise, to participate in crucial decisions that affect them, and then engage in robust, critical dialogue about our society after hours?"
It is important for everyone to recognize the vital role that unions play in society, Bernard said.
"In short, unions are the premier institution of a free, democratic society, promoting democracy in the workplace, as well as economic and social justice, and equality. They have this role because they are instruments of transformation for members and for society at large. And in this transformation rests the real power of unions and their vital role as advocates and vehicles for human rights."
The three-day symposium, which ends Friday, has been organized by four Canadian labour groups: the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), the Canadian Teachers' Federation (CTF), the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW Canada) and the Canadian Police Association (CPA). The opening session was chaired John Staple, deputy secretary general of the CTF.
Larry Brown, secretary-treasurer of the NUPGE, said the 2007 Supreme Court ruling followed "a brutal decade" in which Canadian governments all but eradicated collective bargaining by refusing to negotiate with employees and imposing wage and benefit levels through legislation.
The high court seemed to recognize that workers were on the verge of mass rebellion against such laws, he noted. As a result, it acted to restore balance by establishing labour rights legally and by recognizing that "a fundamental social contract" exists between workers and employers.
Brown also talked about pensions, noting that only about one third of workers (38%) in Canada belong to a pension plan. In fact, the downward trend in the number of workers with pensions mirrors the declining rate of unionization among workers, he noted. Those who belong to a union have a 90% chance of being in a pension plan. Those without a union are 90% likely to have no pension plan at all.
Emily Noble, president of the CTF, said there is a rising appreciation among people of the power of solidarity and the need to act collectively on issues of the day. "We're all in this together. We are our brother's and sister's keeper," she said.
She said one dramatic expression of this trend occurred on Nov. 4 in the United States when Barack Obama was elected president. It was not big corporate executives like Bill Gates who carried Obama to power but citizens by the millions who gave one dollar or $5 to support his campaign, Noble said.
Kevin Corporon, vice-president of UFCW Canada, talked of the legal battles his union has fought in recent years to organize agricultural workers and Wal-Mart employees in Canada. In doing so, he praised "our friends at NUPGE" for the strong support they have provided in both struggles.
The result is that court decisions are now beginning to come down on the side of both these groups of workers as "the most powerful ideal in human history" comes to the fore, he argued. "An injury to one is an injury to all."
Dave Griffin, executive director of the CPA, said there are still many groups in Canada who have yet to win the right to join unions and bargain collectively, including some 16,000 members of the RCMP.
It is ironic that the famous "Red Serge Mounties" - known around the world - are denied basic rights enjoyed by police officers in South Africa, a country with a long history of suppressing workers, he added.
Griffin said many of the RCMP scandals of recent years might have been lessened or avoided if officers had union representation and were not afraid to speak out when wrongdoing occurs within the force. If there is a silver lining in the dark cloud over the RCMP, it is that an opportunity now exists to "bring these people into the union movement," he said. NUPGE