Electing a left-wing government is critical to this agenda, but it merely provides the foundations to achieve meaningful progress in labour law reform. It will be the job of labour unions and community groups to help mobilize the public support necessary to push this agenda forward.
The last ten years of Conservative rule have seen a systematic onslaught against workers. The most egregious attacks have been those attempting to limit the Constitutional rights for workers to express themselves through labour unions that can effectively push back against the corporate-friendly political programme.
While many of these battles have been fought in public and in parliament, some of the most significantly negative changes are before the courts in a series of constitutional challenges. Legislation that imposes collective agreement language (Bill C4 and C59), undermes health and safety protections (Bill C4 & airline safety regulations), is an anti-Constitutional intrusion into union democracy (C377), and supports employer-biased interference with public and private sector union negotiations (Air Canada, Canada Post and rail company back-to-work legislation) all have ongoing or pending legal challenges. C377 and C525 were specifically written to target a union’s ability to represent the will of its members.
But, focusing too much on previous right-wing attacks risks missing a critical opportunity to set the agenda for the next five years. There are many proactive changes to labour legislation that an NDP government should examine. These changes can be broken down into the following three categories. Not all will be possible immediately, or without a larger struggle, but they represent a loose guide for a pro-worker policy agenda.
1. Return Constitutionality to federal labour law
This should be the first focus for any new government. Charter and court challenges are not necessary to discern the questionable Constitutionality of many recent changes to federal regulations and labour law. In fact, for laws like C377, constitutional experts are nearly unanimous in judging them unconstitutional. All of this legislation needs to be repealed, not just because it strips workers of their constitutional rights, but because it wastes hundreds of thousands of dollars as these fights wind their way through the courts.
2. Bring fairness and balance to federal labour relations and regulations
Laws that undermine worker health, airline safety, food quality, and compromise the impartiality of the state in labour negotiations need to be reversed. Additionally, those that impose punitive or unfair conditions on workers in federal sectors and undermine legally mandated levels of federal services should be repealed completely.While these specific laws may be constitutional, most Canadians do not support them and do not think they are fair.
3. Advance a democratic and pro-worker legislative agenda
This step will require broad discussion and action within labour and the government. However, Canada is long overdue for modernized legislation to help protect precarious workers, account for shifts in workforce demographics, and better reflect the type of work being performed.
Employment Insurance should be reformed to protect more workers, include childcare provisions, and support the rights of precarious and contract workers to organize into unions based on local economies. Pension coverage should be expanded so that retirement is not tied to a specific job and workers are guaranteed a minimum living wage.
Socialists should not rest or wait to see whether a new government implements these reforms. Labour and community organizations need to educate, organize and mobilize to push this agenda forward regardless of the election’s outcome. Even if the Conservatives win, being prepared and educated will help guide responses and inspire constructive action.
Come October 20th, the left needs to be ready to present elected officials with concrete and specific ideas for reform that will help advance the labour movement and worker rights.