Supreme Court of Canada to hear charter challenge to Campbell Liberals’ contract-breaking law

News release

The highest court in the land said today that it will hear arguments on whether the Gordon Campbell government’s contract-breaking law violates the equality and freedom of association rights of health care workers in B.C.

On trial is Bill 29 - the 2002 legislation that shredded legally negotiated collective agreements paving the way for an unprecedented privatization of health care services and the mass firing of more than 8,000 health care workers - mostly women.

The legislation also made it easier for the government’s health authorities to close down or downgrade health care facilities across the province.

Hospital Employees’ Union secretary-business manager Judy Darcy says that in addition to causing chaos in the delivery of health care, Bill 29 has had a devastating impact on health care workers and their families.

“Decades of progress towards pay equity were erased. Thousands of decent, family-supporting jobs - nine out of ten held by women - were eliminated. And the subsequent privatization of health services has generated an entire workforce surviving on poverty level wages.

“Everyone knows that Gordon Campbell violated his pre-election commitment to health care workers that he would respect their collective agreements,” says Darcy. “Now the Supreme Court will hear how he violated their constitutionally protected charter rights as well.”

HEU, the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, the B.C. Nurses’ Union and several other unions first launched their constitutional challenge to Bill 29 - The Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act - in March 2002.

The unions’ charter challenge was dismissed by the Supreme Court of B.C. in September 2003 and by the Appeal Court of B.C. in July 2004. But today, the Supreme Court of Canada granted the unions leave to appeal the latter court’s decision.

BCGEU president George Heyman says the unions’ charter case is central to the preservation of the rights of workers to engage in free collective bargaining.

“This government has treated the collective bargaining process with contempt and has been condemned by a United Nations’ agency no less than nine times in two years for its poor labour practices,” says Heyman.

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court of Canada to hear our appeal is a clear signal that Gordon Campbell is taking B.C. in the wrong direction when it comes to labour policy.”

BC Nurses’ Union vice-president Anne Shannon says that Bill 29 makes it more difficult for registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to look after their patients.

“By a legislative stroke of the pen, this government has closed off training opportunities, restricted our ability to move into new jobs, and resulted in the layoff of hundreds of RNs and RPNs to the detriment of patients.”

The unions’ constitutional challenge to Bill 29 involves both the equality and freedom of association provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In seeking leave to appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, the unions argued that their challenge raised questions that are of national and public importance.

One such question is whether certain aspects of collective bargaining are protected by the freedom of association provisions contained in Section 2(d) of the Charter.

Counsel for the unions, Joseph Arvay, says that the “granting of leave is very significant since the Supreme Court of Canada had ruled in the late 1980s that there is no constitutional right to collective bargaining in our Charter and this decision today would suggest that the Court might be prepared to reconsider that critically important constitutional question.”

Another question raised by the unions is whether legislation that targets the collective agreements in the most female-dominated sectors of the economy - such as health care and community social services - violates the equality provisions contained in Section 15 when the legislation is aimed at depressing wages which have been subject to pay equity processes.

Bill 29 was passed in January 2002 and voided many long-standing provisions of health care and community social services collective agreements including protections against contracting out, seniority rights and labour adjustment programs.

The court has not yet scheduled hearing dates but is expected to do so in the next few weeks. The case will likely be heard later this year or early in 2006. The unions’ legal counsel is the B.C.-based firm Arvay Finlay.