Labour finds cause to rejoice in some Trudeau government actions

Justin Trudeau participates in discussion at Canadian Labour Congress National Young Workers Summit. Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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It has been a long time since the Canadian labour movement has had the opportunity to applaud the actions of a Canadian federal government. And yet, this past June, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) did just that, and it did so twice.

The CLC and most Canadian unions are both pleased and relieved that the Trudeau government has repealed Stephen Harper's Bills C-377 and C-525. The previous Conservative government introduced both, sneakily, as private member's bills, as we reported in this space in 2014.

C-377 was disguised as an income tax measure. In fact, however, it imposed costly and onerous reporting mechanisms on unions, of the sort that the government does not impose on business, or even on itself.

C-525 aimed to make it harder for federally regulated workers to unionize, by requiring a secret ballot vote in addition to the existing "card check" system.

Trudeau promised to get rid of both and, in this case, he was true to his promise.

"Our affiliates and labour activists across the country have organized and campaigned against these bills from the beginning, and this is their victory to celebrate," CLC President Hassan Yussuff enthused at the time, in early June.

It is worth noting that in addition to thanking both the current and former Trudeau government labour ministers for making this happen, Yussuff also thanked Quebec Senator Diane Bellemare. It was Bellemare who shepherded the repeal legislation through the Red Chamber.

Senator Bellemare was appointed by Harper, but had previously worked with government, organized labour and business as a highly respected economist. Her main focus was on labour and workplace issues. Bellemare quit the Conservative caucus in 2016 to sit as an Independent. She had already fearlessly criticized a number of Harper initiatives, such as changes to employment insurance. She said the Harper changes would drive down wages. It seems that Stephen Harper's senatorial appointments did not always work out for him, in more ways than one.

International accord on the right to organize unions

The other and more recent action from the Trudeau government came late in June when Labour Minister Patty Hajdu announced that Canada would ratify the International Labour Organization's (ILO's) Convention 98. That agreement, in the words of the CLC, "protects all workers from anti-union discrimination, including being forced to give up union membership in order to get a job, or job termination for participating in union activities." It is officially called the "Convention on the Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively" and it is one of eight key ILO agreements that undergird the basic right to join and belong to a union. It is the only one of that group Canada has, until now, failed to ratify.

The ILO is a United Nations (UN) body, one of the family of UN agencies founded in the late 1940s, following the Second World War. Others in the family include the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).

Canada was an enthusiastic supporter of the ILO from its inception, voting for virtually all of its many conventions, which, among other goals, seek to ban child and forced labour. However, historically, Canadian governments -- both Liberal and Conservative -- have frequently failed to ratify those agreements.

According to the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights, Canada has ratified only a handful of the more than 180 conventions the ILO has adopted at its annual meetings since its inception more 67 years ago.

In addition, Canadian unions have brought numerous complaints to the ILO about the anti-labour practices of both federal and provincial governments. In the vast majority of cases, the ILO has ruled in organized labour's favour. Most of those complaints have concerned government violations of the ILO's principles of freedom of association for workers.

Still, the Canadian Labour Congress and others in the labour movement are happy to salute the Trudeau government's indication that it will, however belatedly, ratify ILO Convention 98.

As CLC President Hassan Yussuff sees it, adopting this international agreement is far more than a symbolic gesture. It will have a tangible impact on Canadian policy, both at home and abroad, especially in the current global context.

"Internationally, this ratification means Canada can more effectively insist that trade partners like the United States and Mexico must respect and enforce labour rights," Yussuff explains. "This is key as we face the prospect of renegotiating NAFTA."

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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