Ontario farmworkers’ fight for unionization reaches top court

Province appealed court ruling that legislation banning unionization is a violation of charter right to organize for collective bargaining

A decades-long quest by Ontario farm workers to regain their human rights arrives at the Supreme Court of Canada on Dec. 17. It is the final stop for a case that stems from a charter challenge launched by the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW Canada) on behalf of Ontario agriculture workers who haven’t had the right to unionize since 1995, when the Mike Harris-led Conservative provincial government passed legislation banning it.

"Farm workers are human beings. We're not farm animals. We have human rights. We should be treated like other workers in Ontario and be allowed to unionize," said Mindy Leng, a farm worker from Windsor, Ont., whose attempts to organize a union at a mushroom factory farm were derailed by the legislation. Leng and several other co-workers were fired by the farm without cause.

A November 2008 Ontario Court ruling ordered Ontario to drop the union-banning legislation because it was unconstitutional. The decision pointed to the freedom of association rights which under the charter guarantees the right to organize for the purposes of collective bargaining.

But instead of following that order, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government appealed it to the Supreme Court.

"This is a question about justice and equality," said Wayne Hanley, the National President of UFCW Canada. "These workers are looking to the Supreme Court to tell the McGuinty government, once and for all, that agricultural workers in Ontario have the same human rights as every other Ontario worker — including their rights, guaranteed by the charter, to join a union and bargain collectively."

The Supreme Court’s decision will not only affect the rights of 80,000 farm workers in Ontario, but could also affect the rights of other workers in Canada in a variety of sectors who by legislation are prevented from unionizing.

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