Friday, December 21, 2007

Collective bargaining at the RCMP

This is the first article I have seen on this matter. Obviously the Brown report should have had more to say on this matter and could have easily made recommendations to solve the problem of unionisation. To allow unionisation with compulsory arbitration rather than the right to strike would seem to be a fair enough balance of security versus rights to organise.

Collective bargaining at the RCMP

Management declines to negotiate.

Dateline: Tuesday, December 18, 2007

by Roy J Adams

Subsequent to the Supreme Court's BC Health Services decision in June constitutionalizing collective bargaining, several regional associations of Mounted Police sent in requests to bargain to RCMP Management.

Shortly before these developments independent investigator David Brown's report into problems surrounding the RCMP pension system had revealed a cornucopia of internal problems including an erratic and autocratic management style that was creating huge morale and safety problems. In July a new commissioner, civilian William Elliott, was appointed with a view towards addressing these problems.

New Task Force report fails to offer solutions for troubled, fractious force.

Since the Supreme Court had made it pretty clear that public sector employers have a constitutional duty to recognize and bargain in good faith with independent associations of their employees, one might have expected this new regime, with the blessing of the federal government, to respect the Mounties' desire to negotiate. Maybe not. The answer was no.

This episode is the most recent in a long and troubled history that goes back to the post-World War I era. Workers from many walks of life were organizing and demanding negotiations about their conditions of work, police among them. In 1919 a police strike in Boston led to riots and looting.

That incident confirmed the fears of Canadian legislators. Worried that police strikes would lead to chaos and anarchy, the federal Cabinet had produced, in 1918, an Order-in-Council forbidding any Mounties from becoming "a member of or in any wise associated with any Trades Union Organization". Contravention of the regulation was "cause for instant dismissal."

While these events were occurring in North America, on the international stage the rights of labour more generally were being acknowledged. In 1919 the International Labour Organization came into existence and quickly established the international standard that the rights to organize, bargain collectively and strike were fundamental to democratic society.

However, even the ILO recognized that some work is so essential that its absence would cause undue hardship to innocent bystanders and so, representatives of labour, business and governments agreed that, for workers in critical jobs, arbitration could be substituted for the strike-right. There was only one exception to the general rule. Police and the military could be forbidden by their governments to organize altogether.

Some governments exercised that option but, more commonly, sober reflection calmed alarmism and police were eventually permitted to unionize and to bargain like other workers. As the Boston strike faded in memory, Canadian police formed associations that eventually won recognition by the authorities. Except for the RCMP, nearly all police forces in Canada are, today, permitted to organize and bargain collectively and have done so.

Despite these developments, the federal government continued to withhold bargaining rights from RCMP officers. However, when Mounties joined with other public sector workers agitating for recognition in the 1970s the authorities had a partial change of heart. In 1974 they approved the establishment of the so-called Div-Rep system.

Instead of an independent union, RCMP officers would be able to elect representatives to sit with management to discuss conditions. But management would have the final say. Neither the right to strike, nor the right to submit issues in dispute to binding arbitration would be available.

Many officers were willing to settle for this system (referred to disparagingly by traditional unionists as "company unionism"). Others weren't.

Some of those opposed took the issue to the Supreme Court. In 1999, the Court said that forbidding officers from forming independent associations was unconstitutional. On the other hand, RCMP management did not have to recognize or bargain with those associations or replace the Div-Rep system with genuine collective bargaining.

In the "BC Health Services" case, the current Court overturned that position by declaring that, in principle, the denial to any Canadian workers of the right to organize and bargain contravened the Charter. Employees, the Court said, have "the right to unite, to present demands to government employers collectively and to engage in discussions in an attempt to achieve workplace-related goals." The Charter also "imposes corresponding duties on government employers to agree to meet and discuss with them."

Failing to achieve recognition in the latest round, the Mounted Police Association of Ontario has filed a new court case. In deciding the issue, the courts might reason that if exclusion of police from the general principle is permitted internationally, legislators should be allowed to use their judgment. But if a balancing of the rights of workers and the public is the Court's key standard for deciding such issues, as Chief Justice Beverly McLaughlin said in a recent speech that it would be, then the courts should strike down the standing policy and the law sustaining it.

Substituting arbitration for the strike-right has been highly effective in ensuring the continuous delivery of crucial services not only for police but for other public sector workers as well. Forbidding police to unionize is unnecessary overkill.

The federal government — in cooperation with RCMP top management — does not have to wait for the courts to decide the issue. It could simply do the right thing and abandon the offensive policy. But the just released report of the Task Force on Governance and Cultural Change in the RCMP, chaired by David Brown, probably ensures that it won't do that.

The Task Force might have (should have) been able to connect the dots tying the long-term denial of bargaining rights to the oppressive culture, internal friction and inadequate training and safety provisions that afflict the force. But it didn't. With regard to labour relations, it merely recommended a minor tune-up of the Div-Rep system. Astonishingly, it managed to overlook or ignore altogether the Supreme Court decision.

Roy J Adams is a prominent Canadian author, newspaper columnist, human rights activist and academic.

He emigrated to Canada in 1973 and taught industrial relations at McMaster University until 1997. Since then he has been a newspaper columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and has written a number of articles. His most recently published book is Labour Left Out: Canada's Failure to Protect and Promote Collective Bargaining as a Human Right.


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