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The Origin of Canadian Labour Law

October 21, 2014 at 4:31pm

UFCW175-LockoutHorizon2014Have you ever wondered how our Canadian employment and labour laws developed?

Employment law has existed since people began working for other people and it governs the relationship between an individual employee and their employer. Labour law emerged with the rise of trade unions to govern collective employment relations, the terms and conditions of employment set out in a collective agreement and covering two or more individual workers. In Canada, if you are a member of a trade union, only labour law applies.

The Canadian model of labour law developed incrementally. In the 19th century, it was illegal to belong to a union and employers had no obligation to deal with unions. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some trade union activities became decriminalized and the government passed laws allowing for collective bargaining.

The modern version of Canadian labour law is based on the Wagner Act. Wagnerwas a law adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1933 which, among other things, gave workers the right to organize into unions, forced employers to recognize unions and bargain collectively. Wagneralso provided for a National Labour Relations Board to administer certifications and cases of unfair labour practices.

In 1944, the Canadian Federal government passed Order in Council PC 1003 which largely copied the Wagnermodel. The provisions of PC 1003 were rapidly adopted by most provinces. Canadian labour law, however, is distinct from U.S. laws in at least one aspect: Strikes and lock-outs are prohibited during the term of a collective agreement and before achieving a first collective agreement, and are only allowed after the conciliation process has ended.

In exchange for this “peace obligation” a legally enforceable grievance and arbitration procedure was adopted. The reason for the Canadian approach is based on the large number of strikes that occurred prior to the adoption of PC 1003. A majority of these strikes were the result of employers failing to recognize a union. The government effectively said to the unions: ‘We will give you a process for recognition and employers will have to play ball, but you can’t just go on strike when you feel like it.’

UFCW175-StrikeHagi2014The reason for the Canadian approach is based on the large number of strikes that occurred prior to the adoption of PC 1003. A majority of these strikes were the result of employers failing to recognize a union. The government effectively said to the unions: ‘We will give you a process for recognition and employers will have to play ball, but you can’t just go on strike when you feel like it.’

The adoption of our Canadian model has not prevented all unlawful strikes but it certainly has reduced the number. Whether our model of labour law is better than another is a matter for debate. But only by understanding where we came from will we be able to determine whether the model continues to best serve the interests of workers and their families.

 

 


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