In a landmark 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the existence of a constitutional right to engage in meaningful collective bargaining. In doing so, the Court overturned its own previous decision that found statutory restrictions placed on the ability of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (“RCMP”) members to engage in collective bargaining did not violate the right to freedom of association enshrined in section 2(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Unlike most other federal public servants, RCMP members are subject to a labour relations scheme that permits representation by an employee association, but expressly prohibits collective bargaining or unionization. The representatives of the employee association are not selected or controlled by the RCMP members, nor are they independent from management. The Mounted Police Association of Ontario challenged the labour relations structure imposed upon them, arguing that such restrictions unduly infringed on their constitutional right to freedom of association as enshrined in section 2(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The majority of the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with the Mounted Police Association of Ontario, finding that “the guarantee of freedom of association protects a meaningful process of collective bargaining that provides employees with a degree of choice and independence sufficient to enable them to determine and pursue their collective interests”. As the labour relations regime governing RCMP members restricts this process, the Court determined that such restrictions were unconstitutional. According to the majority of the Court, “[t]he government cannot enact laws or impose a labour relations process that substantially interferes with the right” of employees to meaningfully pursue collective workplace goals.
The Court further noted that, although it was previously reluctant “to embrace the full import of the freedom of association guarantee in the field of labour relations”, the jurisprudence has evolved to support a more purposive, generous, and contextual approach. However, the Court was quick to point out that the right to freedom of association in the labour relations context is not absolute. The degree of choice required by section 2(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is one that enables employees to have effective input into the selection of the collective goals to be advanced by their association. Furthermore, the degree of independence required is one that ensures that the activities of the association are aligned with the interests of its members. The Court noted that RCMP members do not have a right to a particular labour relations regime (such as unionization). Rather, RCMP members are entitled to a “regime that does not substantially interfere with meaningful collective bargaining.”
The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision is substantial as it affirms that all persons are entitled to meaningful collective bargaining, and, importantly, clarifies the two pillars of such a meaningful process: choice and independence. However, the majority of the Court did not find a general right to unionization, nor did it find that the right to freedom of association is unrestrained. Courts are directed to apply a contextual analysis to determine whether meaningful collective bargaining has been engaged.
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