Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Disorganized Labour: Unions and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms - Part One

This week marks this 25th anniversary of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As such, I'm going to be posting, in three parts, a paper that I am working on for a conference next month. Your comments are welcome.

Disorganized Labour: Unions and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

"I think we goofed as a labour movement, we should probably have paid a lot more attention to the Charter than we did."[1]

The 1980-81 Special Joint Committee on the Canadian Constitution heard submissions from over one thousand individuals and groups concerned about patriation and the future of the proposed Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[2] Women's organizations, civil liberties associations, aboriginal organizations, ethno-cultural groups, and the business lobby all made their presence felt; the Committee even heard from a group of British Columbians who wanted the right to use hallucinogenic mushrooms entrenched in the Constitution.[3] Neither the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) nor the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ) made a formal oral presentation to the Committee.

This paper examines the CLC and the FTQ positions on patriation of the Constitution and argues that the Congress adopted a neutral position in order to avoid a confrontation with the péquiste FTQ who opposed patriation. It will also be argued that the CLC's non-involvement in the process of patriating the Constitution was influenced by its desire not to exacerbate the internal dissension which already existed within the New Democratic Party (NDP) over the issue of unilateral patriation of the Constitution with a proposed Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The second half of this paper is devoted to critiquing previously held assumptions about organized labour's decision not to participate in the process of patriating the Constitution and proposes that CLC's decision to adopt a neutral position represents a significant shift in the relationship between the Congress and the FTQ.

The Aftermath of the 1980 Referendum

After the victory of the federalist forces in the 1980 Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association, Federal Justice Minister Jean Chretien was dispatched to the provincial capitals to test the waters for a new round of constitutional reform. His efforts resulted in the establishment of the 1980-81 Special Joint Committee on the Constitution. The Committee’s task was to gather public input regarding patriation of the Constitution with a proposed Charter or Rights and Freedoms. Before the committee began hearing submissions, the CLC did take the time to write a letter in support of aboriginal rights,[4] but that is as far as the Congress would go.

In Quebec, the FTQ, in a December 1980 memorandum to the provincial government wrote:
"Nous sommes en conséquence profondément indignés de la forme et contenu de la démarche de M. Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Nous regrettons d’ailleurs vivement qu’un parti social-démocrate comme le NPD s’enligne sure des positions centralisatrices et étroitement économistes cautionnant ainsi un procédé aussi antidémocratique que cette entreprise de repatriement unilatéral de la constitution canadienne."[5]

The Federation followed up in February 1981 with a detailed brief to the Quebec government criticizing the content of Trudeau’s proposed constitutional package. The FTQ argued that unilateral patriation of the constitution was unnecessary, undemocratic and part of a strategy to increase the power of Ontario and the federal government at the expense of Quebec. The Federation also argued that the proposed Charter of Rights and Freedoms threatened the rights of workers and that the proposed amending formula was unacceptable because it did not give a veto to Quebec.[6] In terms of labour organizations in English Canada, only the BC Federation of Labour bothered to submit a written brief to the committee which addressed the immediate concerns of the union movement. Its brief complained about the exclusion of social and economic rights from the proposed Charter of Rights:

"Nowhere does one find reference to a general right to employment, the right to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work, the right to form trade unions, the right to social security, the right to protection of the family, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, or a general right to education. It is our opinion that the failure of the Charter to make provision for this category of rights is its single most important shortcoming."[7]

Organized labour's absence from the Special Joint Committee's hearings was odd considering that Canadian unions had historically shown interest in the country's constitutional affairs. About a dozen labour organizations had participated in the Molgat-McGuigan Committee on constitutional reform which sat from 1970-1972. Local 444 of the United Auto Workers led the way by calling on the government to guarantee every Canadian the right to a job.[8] At the CLC’s 1978 convention, over a dozen labour organizations submitted resolutions on Canada’s Constitutional Question. The FTQ, CUPE, and the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) all submitted resolutions in favour of the principle of self-determination for Quebec, while the International Woodworkers of America submitted a resolution calling for national unity.[9] Eleven resolutions calling for patriation of a new constitution or constitutional reform were submitted by various unions locals representing the UAW, the USWA, the Fishermen’s Union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), the Canadian Brotherhood of Rail and Transport Workers (CBRT), and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.[10] In 1979, a large number of labour organizations in Canada were making their views known to the Task Force on Canadian Unity. The Manitoba Federation of Labour, the Labour Council of Metropolitan Toronto, the USWA, the CSD, the Alberta Federation of Labour, the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, in their submissions to the Task Force, all stressed the economic dimension of constitutional instability. The Labour Council of Metropolitan Toronto, for example, argued that “the primary source of the present crisis... is the failure of successive federal governments to meet the economic, social and cultural needs of Canadians.”[11] It was therefore odd that organized labour in English Canada ignored Prime Minister Trudeau's assertion that patriation would result in a new constitution, a renewed federalism, and a new Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Such bold pronouncements ought to have signaled to organized labour that the constitutional talks of the early 1980s deserved unprecedented attention.

Why then did Canadians witness such disinterest on behalf of organized labour in English Canada? The labour movement certainly did not "fall asleep at the switch" as some observers have suggested.[12] On the contrary, the CLC was certainly attentive to the tension between Quebec and the Rest of Canada over constitutional issues (as evidenced by the internal struggle within the Congress) and acutely aware that the Charter could potentially pose a serious threat to the union movement. At a September 1980 CLC Executive Council meeting, Pat Kerwin, head of the CLC Political Action department, reported that “the Charter of Rights may come up in the next few months which could inevitably threaten collective bargaining rights.”[13] The Canadian labour movement's decision to stay away from the constitutional battles on Parliament Hill in the early 1980s, it will be argued, was entirely political and based on a strategy of self-preservation. In order to understand the reasons behind organized labour's policy of non-involvement, one must first reconsider the political relationship between the CLC, the FTQ and the NDP.


[1] Fred Pomeroy, President, Communication and Electrical Workers of Canada, quoted in Pradeep Kumar and Dennis Ryan, eds. Canadian Union Movement in the 1980's: Perspectives from Union Leaders (Kingston: Queen's University Press, 1988), 222.
[2] Robert Sheppard and Michael Valpy, The National Deal: The Fight for a Canadian Constitution (Toronto: Fleet, 1982), 137.
[3] Robert Sheppard and Michael Valpy, The National Deal: The Fight for a Canadian Constitution (Toronto: Fleet, 1982), 137.
[4] CLC Executive Council minutes, December 9-11, 1980.
[5] Mémoire présenté par la fédérations des travailleurs du québec au gouvernment de québec, (décembre 1980), 2.
[6] Mémoire de la FTQ à la commission de la présidence du conseil et de la constitution relativement au project de résolution du gouvernement fédéral concernant la constitution, Québec, (5 février, 1981).
[7] British Columbia Federation of Labour Presentation to the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution of Canada, (Jauary 8, 1981), 10.
[8] UAW local 444 presentation to the Special Joint Committee of the Constitution of Canada, Vol 23 (October 12, 1970): 8.
[9] CLC, convention document, Québec, April 3-7, 1978.
[10] CLC, convention document, Québec, April 3-7, 1978.
[11] Labour Council of Metropolitan Toronto, as cited in Task Force on Canadian Unity, (March 1979), 186.
[12] Union lawyers, as cited in Michael Mandel, The Charter of Rights and the Legalization of Politics, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 1994), 261.
[13] CLC Executive Minutes, September 15, 1980.

1 comment:

janfromthebruce said...

It has to do with verb tenses.
You said: This paper examines the CLC and the FTQ positions on patriation of the Constitution and argues that the Congress adopted a neutral position in order to avoid a confrontation with the péquiste FTQ who opposed patriation. It will also be argued...."

Make them agree, so you might want to try
"It will also argue...."