Ontario farm workers win the right to join unions

Legislation violated agricultural workers' rights to freedom of association: Court

The Ontario Court of Appeal has struck down the sections of the Agricultural Employees Protection Act that prevent farm workers from joining a union.

The act, which the Ontario government introduced six years ago, gave farm workers the right to form employee associations but stopped short of allowing them to engage in collective bargaining.

In the 3-0 decision, the court said the legislation violates agricultural employees' rights to freedom of association under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court gave the Ontario government 12 months to rewrite the law.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture, a farmers' lobby group that intervened in the case, warned that many family farms could not survive if confronted with union demands.

"It is arbitrary to exclude all agricultural workers from a collective bargaining scheme on economic grounds, where collective bargaining has been extended to almost every other class of worker in Ontario, even in other industries that also face thin profit margins and unpredictable production cycles," said Chief Justice Warren Winkler, who wrote the decision on behalf of the panel.

The ruling is a victory for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which brought the case before the province's highest court last spring. The Ontario Superior Court dismissed the union's claim that the act violated the workers' constitutional rights to form associations.

But since then, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the British Columbia government had violated the Charter rights of hospital workers by passing laws that undid portions of their collective agreement. In doing so, the court effectively ruled that collective bargaining is a constitutionally protected right.

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