Alison Braley-Rattai, Assistant Professor in the Department of Labour Studies, wrote a piece for The Conversation which was picked up by the National Post and other publications Wednesday, Nov. 28. The article focused on Bill C-89, which ended the rotating strikes that the Canadian Union of Postal Workers had engaged in for more than a month and sends the labour dispute to third-party, binding arbitration after a specified mediation period.
Those arguing Bill C-89 is unconstitutional refer to the fact that postal service is not “essential.” They also cite a 2016 court ruling in which a similar bill (C-6) introduced by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2011 was deemed unconstitutional.
While both of these facts are relevant, neither determines whether the present bill is unconstitutional.
Federal Labour Minister Patricia Hajdu claims the postal service is “essential” and the rotating strikes were harming small and medium-sized enterprises.
Under international labour law, “essential services” are defined narrowly. Previous attempts to expand the definition of essential to include economic harm caused by a strike have been decisively rejected by the International Labour Organization’s Committee on Freedom of Association. And the Supreme Court of Canada has explicitly endorsed the restricted definition of “essential services” found under international labour law.
When it comes to labour law, the term “essential” is a loaded one. And it isn’t obvious whether the minister intends for the term to be understood in its legal, or some other, sense. And maybe it doesn’t matter.
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