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Progress in Bill 22 campaign
From Roy J. Adams, 11 March 1999
Since the spring of 1998 SPHRE has been working to organize opposition to Ontario's Prevention of Unionism Act. In December of 1998 the UN issued a statement asking the province to withdraw the Act which both the province and the media pretty much ignored. Below is a copy of an article that I published in the Hamilton Spectator on 1 March, the Minister's response and a copy of an article that the Spectator has promised to run in response.
In December of 1998 a very curious development occurred in Ontario. The United Nations condemned the province's Prevention of Unionism Act as a clear violation of the international body's Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The explicit purpose of Bill 22 was to dissuade workfare recipients from exercising their freedom of association by establishing an organization to represent their interests in the province's workfare program. That policy is a violation of international human rights standards and, more specifically, goes against commitments voluntarily entered into by the province to conform to the UN's economic covenant.
Here is what the UN's committee had to say about the bill:
"The Committee notes that Bill 22, entitled "An Act to Prevent Unionization", was adopted by the Ontario Legislative Assembly on 24 November 1998. The Act denies to workfare participants the rights to join a trade union, to bargain collectively and to strike. In response to a request from the Committee, the Government provided no information in relation to the compatibility of the Act with the Covenant. The Committee considers the Act to be a clear violation of article 8 of the Covenant and calls upon the State Party to take measures to repeal the offending provisions."
The UN's comment on the Prevention of Unionism Act was part of a larger report on Canada's compliance with the Covenant. The media, for the most part, focused on other aspects of the report most notably on the sections that were critical of Canada for not doing more to address a serious child poverty problem. I was very chagrined at the failure of the press to tell Ontarians what the UN had to say about our government's irresponsible disrespect for international freedom of association norms. Wearing another of my hats, that of chair of the steering committee of the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights in Employment, I sent a news release to nearly every daily newspaper (but not the Spectator for which I figured I would write something at any rate), every television station and every radio station in the province outlining the situation.
A clear human rights violation was taking place right here at home rather than in some exotic, far off, likely backward place and nobody was paying any attention. Nor was this violation like the persistence of poverty which is a very difficult social issue incapable of being solved instantaneously. Bill 22 was entirely unnecessary to fulfill any of the policy objectives of the government. The vision of hordes of militant workfare recipients besieging Queen's Park so successfully as to compel the government to dismantle its workfare program is totally absurd. Unlike child poverty this denial of a fundamental human right embedded in essentially all international human rights instruments could be withdraw easily, quickly and costlessly.
Instead of doing the right and lawful thing, our Minister of Community and Social Services, Janet Ecker, rejected the UN report as "politically motivated commentary" as if this committee of eminent persons from countries around the world was a mob of wild-eyed fringe radicals whose specific purpose was to undermine Tory policy in Ontario.
Even when the gravity of the situation was brought to its attention, our fourth estate continued to ignore this drama. In response to my press release only one reporter called me. To the best of my knowledge, no daily newspaper, no television news program, no radio station deemed this clear violation of human rights to be worthy of its attention.
What concerns me the most about this episode is its implications for our democratic way of life. The main thing that keeps in place the institutions that protect our rights and freedoms is convention. It is press and public reaction, as much or more so than statutes and constitutions, that controls governments and keeps them from behaving badly. If a government in a country internationally renowned for its human rights record and policy can deny a fundamental human right so easily without sanction then it and other perhaps less ethical governments must be emboldened to push the envelope.
Maybe I'm an alarmist but this episode worries me a lot. I've seen democratic rights collapse often enough in countries around the world to be convinced that it could happen even here. Vigilance, both by individuals and by the press, is our best protection against that eventuality. So far, we have slept thorough this episode. Whether the result will be a harmless chink in our armour or a tiny hole that eventually will bring down the dike, only time will tell.
In response the Minister sent the following letter to the Spectator and it was published on 11 March:
RE: "Media ignor Tory bill condemned by UN"
I would like to respond to the article by Roy J. Adams criticizing Bill 22, an Act to Prevent Unionization with respect to Community Participation under the Ontario Works Act.
I would like to provide information about the purpose of the legislation. Bill 22 deal only with Ontario Works participants in community placements. These placements provide opportunities for people to gain valuable work experience and make contacts in the community.
Community placements help build self-esteem and re-establish good work habits. The legislation does not affect any union affiliation in employment activities outside of the community participation requirements of Ontario Works.
Participants in community placement activities are not and never have been considered employees.
Some union representatives have chosen to prevent us from moving forward with Ontario Works--either by threatening to unionize welfare recipients who participate, or by harassing community agencies which offer help. We will not stand by and allow some labour leaders to stop these valuable and productive reforms to our welfare system.
Participants in community placements continue to benefit from workplace protections including: required health and safety coverage; workplace insurance; privacy protection; and a restriction on hours per month to a maximum of 70.
People on welfare have told us that Ontario Works is working. They are telling us how their participation in Ontario Works has helped them to gain the confidence and skills necessary to get off welfare and into jobs. To date, more than 372,000 people have left welfare and two independent surveys have shown that the vast majority are leaving for jobs and training opportunities.
Our reforms are helping more people escape the welfare trap than ever before and will continue to support people who want to get off welfare and into paid employment
Janet Ecker, Minister of Community and Social Services, Toronto.
On March first I published an article critical of the provincial government's Prevention of Unionism Act and on 11 March the Spectator published a response by Community and Social Services Minister Janet Ecker. In her apology for the Act, the Minister stated that its intention was to prevent "some labour leaders" from disrupting Ontario's Workfare program "by threatening to unionize welfare recipients who participate, or by harassing community agencies which offer help."
There are some serious flaws in this "explanation." First of all if "some labour leaders" are determined enough and skilled enough to organize welfare recipients with a view towards disrupting the workfare program, Bill 22 will not stop them from doing that. As the Minister notes Workfare recipients are not legally classified as employees and therefore cannot make use of the union certification procedures of the Ontario Labour Relations Act. However, even if the province tries physically to stop them, the Federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms clearly gives all Canadians, including Workfare recipients, the right to organize in their own interests and engage in activities such as the picketing of community agencies if they want to do that.
So, the first thing to be said is that the Bill does not do (legally) what the Minister tells us it was intended to do. The Minister is not being truthful with us when she claims that Bill 22 gives her the power stop "some labour leaders" from submarining her Workfare program.
The second serious problem with the Minister's explanation is that it sidesteps the criticism aimed at Bill 22 by the United Nation's Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the wake of the holocaust the nations of the world in the 1940s established a set of international standards embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In essence they pledged that they would give up as policy instruments a list of unsavory activities engaged in by governments throughout history such as torture, imprisonment without trial and murder for political convictions. Included in that list was a pledge not to outlaw unions.
Although they sometimes make a nuisance of themselves by disrupting our daily activities, unions are a major bulwark of democracy. When Hitler came to power in Germany in the 1930s one of the first things he did was destroy the labour movement. On a more positive note, it was an illegally constituted Polish union - Solidarity - that began the process that brought to an end the totalitarian regimes of East and Central Europe.
By signing the UN's Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Canada and Ontario very explicity agreed to be bound by its terms. Among other things, every signer of the Covenant agrees to respect Freedom of Association and the right of all citizens (whether or not they are legally classified as employees) to organize and bargain collectively about issues of concern to them. The title and language of Bill 22 are as offensive against the international human rights consensus as would be an Act to Discriminate Against Women or An Act to Encourage Child Labour. The UN quite pointedly has asked Ontario "to take measures to repeal the offending provisions" of the Prevention of Unionism Act and we should all insist that Minister Ecker respect Ontario's international commitments to humanity by doing so forthwith.
Roy J. Adams
tel: 905-525-9140, ext 23965
"NO REGULATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION"