Roy Adams, professor emeritus of industrial relations at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, has a distinguished publishing history emphasizing workers’ rights to form or join a union. He has persuasively pointed out that the development of North American industrial relations and the very close relationship between union membership and collective bargaining has led to unhealthily narrow views of both the rights of union members and the nature of collective bargaining.
In a recent Canadian Labour and Employment Law Journal issue, Adams develops two themes reflecting on how the workplace and economic life are organized. In the first theme, he insists that worker representative organizations are fundamental to a democracy. Workers must have an inherent right to join and participate in the activities of a trade union to advance their economic interests, just as citizens in a democracy are free to join and participate in the activities of a political party to advance their political interests.
A worker representative organization exists in its own right as a social institution. This is obvious to comfortable Western minds, but for those in developing countries, where the leading role of trade unions is fighting for the basic right to exist—170 labour leaders were assassinated in Columbia in 2003—it is not.
However, maintaining basic democratic freedoms for unions in our domestic context is also equally important. Without meaningful worker institutions that can be freely formed and joined, the gravity of economic power inevitably forces choices to be made that will compromise the freedom and dignity of workers. Even most workers who choose not to join a trade union recognize that the existence of unions as an option remains vital for the protection of their economic freedom.
The second theme Adams develops is that unionization has become too narrowly defined and restricted to collective bargaining.
Although collective bargaining is a technique commonly employed by unions to achieve their ends, it is not a decisive defining characteristic of unionism. In addition to bargaining, unions around the globe commonly make use of other methods for representing and defending their members’ interests, such as gathering and disseminating information, publicizing grievances in the media and mobilizing public sentiment, lobbying government and advising members of their legal rights.
Adams highlights the arguments in some recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions to suggest that we may be entering an era in which the accustomed assumptions of Canadian labour law may be radically overturned. While the variations he discusses include minority unionism, non-statutory unionism (he observes how collective bargaining can occur outside union structures), and a revisiting of certain jurisprudence, the significance is not so much the particular outcomes as the consequences of these changes.
North American labour relations has followed a path of rigid assumptions since the Wagner framework was introduced over 60 years ago. Although there are widely divergent views about how the system might be remodelled, there is a growing awareness that the system and the legal frameworks that support it will undergo fundamental change in the years to come. Adams arguments provide further fodder that based on both international law and Canadian constitutional law, the footsteps of change are sounding closer.