Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Liberal bullying handed unions their big win

Well, you brought it all on yourself.
People hate to hear that, especially because it's so often true. It certainly is for Premier Gordon Campbell and the Supreme Court of Canada ruling on Liberal legislation that gutted union contracts and permanently limited some employees' rights.
The Supreme Court broke new ground in the judgment, finding for the first time that the right to form unions and bargain collectively is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the past, the court had taken the view that those weren't charter rights.
No one knows exactly what this is going to mean. But it isn't good news for employers.
And the only reason the court went so far was the Liberals' unreasonable heavy-handedness in 2002 when they brought in Bill 29.
The legislation was extraordinary. It gutted the contracts of health employees, removing all protection against layoffs and contracting out. The goal was clear. The government wanted the employees fired and replaced with people who could be hired at much lower ages.
So it changed the rules to clear the way.
And it went further. The legislation said that health employees, whether they worked for government or a private company, could never again negotiate the same kind of job protection that everyone else in the province could seek.
It was extreme legislation, but the government maintained it had no choice. The health employees were paid too much. Their rights had to be sacrificed.
The legislation sailed through on a weekend. The Liberals had 77 of 79 seats. There weren't many questions from the obedient backbench MLAs.
The unions challenged the legislation in court, losing in the B.C. Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. Both noted previous decisions that found bargaining rights weren't protected by the charter.
The unions pressed on to the Supreme Court of Canada. And the justices, hearing the facts of the case, decided that their earlier judgments were wrong. Canadians had accepted that people had the right to band together and negotiate contracts with their employers. The federal government had signed international agreements recognizing the principle.
The Supreme Court said they are now to be counted among the individual rights protected by the charter.
And the B.C. government had illegally violated those rights, the court found.
What's striking when you read the judgment is how easily the government could have avoided this. The justices accepted the fact that health care costs were a problem that needed to be addressed. And they were clear that government had the responsibility and authority to take the steps needed to manage tough public-policy issues.
But that isn't a licence to stomp all over citizens' rights. What got the Liberals in trouble was indifference and arrogance. The court noted that the government didn't try and sit down with the unions and find a solution. There was no consultation, just a phone call 20 minutes before the bill was introduced. There was no debate. And the government couldn't offer any evidence it had looked at less draconian solutions.
The Liberals went straight to bully tactics, using the power of the state against citizens. And it lost in court because of that.
Efforts to negotiate savings likely wouldn't have worked. The unions had won some pretty good deals under the NDP government. And Gordon Campbell had promised to respect those agreements in an interview with the Hospital Employees' Union newspaper.
But the government's failure to try has proved costly.
The Supreme Court suspended its judgment for a year, giving the government time to right the wrong.
So far, Campbell has been talking tough. That can't last long. The onus is on the government to respond to the ruling. It needs to come up with a proposal that reflects the damage done to the thousands of people who lost their jobs or took pay cuts as a result of the legislation.
And it needs to show how it will allow legal bargaining in future.
If it doesn't, the unions will be presenting their solutions to the Supreme Court a year from now.
Footnote: The ruling opens the door for more cases. The government used legislation to strip class-size limits from the B.C. Teachers Federation contract. The union can now argue that those kinds of working conditions should be subject to bargaining, even if the government can ultimately impose a solution.


Anonymous said...

Of course they thought they were going to win. Every decision previously said that collective bargaining does not belong in the charter. It's a thing called stare decisis, but things have changed dramatically with this new decision.

What's so scary about this decision is it basically says governments can no longer structure themselves to deliver services in the way that they believe best suits the public. Takes power away from democracy.

Anonymous said...

Interesting interpretation, Anon - I haven't heard anyone else suggest that this decision prevents governments from structuring themselves to deliver services that best suit the needs of the public nor that it takes power away from democracy.

It just says they have to consult and negotiate in good faith - ultimately they can still do what is required, as long as they've tried to be reasonable - which Campbell never even bothered to do.

If his abuse of power had targetted you instead (say, by ripping up a work contract and prohibiting you from ever freely negotiating a similar contract again; or perhaps by doubling your income or property tax assessment after the fact), I'd imagine you would be speed dialing your own lawyer.

I understand that my right to affordable public health care must be balanced with the rights of those who deliver that health care. As citizens, I think we all expect the right to fair and reasonable treatment by the state.

The idea that it was OK to brutally violate individual rights for the collective benefit of others was what fuelled monsters like Stalin. Now that's truly scary! Thankfully, our highest court read the writing on the wall and stopped Mr. Campbell and others cold before we went any further down that road.

Anonymous said...

The decision to break another agreement, Government folks going on to pensions were to have certain medical and dental coverage, has hurt a lot of folks. Gordo took that away as well. So they went to the courts, the governemtn treid to stop their case from proceeding, but it is proceeding. I sure hope the Supreme Court ruling can help the government pensioners. My wife is one of them, part of the reason she left early was knowing she would have those benefits. Thanks to Gordo that didn't happen.

Anonymous said...

[It just says they have to consult and negotiate in good faith ]-
Well said and hopefully Gordon realises now that even his BC some standards exist. He was on a roll,drunk with power, with no opposition so did a "Ralph " and decided to trash the public service.