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My Back Still Aches When I Hear That Word Add to ...

Unlike 95 per cent of Canadians, I've actually worked on a farm.

It's brutal, dangerous, back-breaking work in the sun with long-hours and short pay. And I don't believe it should be unionized. This is a tough position for me to take, as I believe in collective bargaining and the legal right of workers to join a union. But the recent decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal to throw out a provincial bill allowing unionization but not collective bargaining finally decided the issue for me. There is no shortage of arguments in favour of allowing farm workers to unionize, including: - Dangerous working conditions - Violates the Charter and Freedom of Association - Wages pressed artificially low by lack of unionization - Potential exploitation of workers, particularly migrant workers But three of the four of these arguments are addressed by allowing workers to organize themselves into unions, but not to bargain collectively. Unions are then able to alert workers to their rights. They can provide them with information about working conditions, worker's compensation provisions and provide an avenue to ensure action is taken to address any dangerous conditions. Unions can also act to bridge the language barriers that leave some migrant workers open to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. And it addresses the potential Charter issue somewhat. In the last two years, provincial courts have read the right to unionize into the Charter, dropping it under the Freedom of Association section despite precedents to the contrary. Until that read-in is tested more formally before the Supreme Court, I am very wary of drafting legislation around one-off provincial court rulings. But there are definite shortcomings for workers without collective bargaining. Wages cannot be addressed under such a regime, nor is a strike action legal. This emasculates the union into being little more than a spokesperson for the workers, a reverse-foreman if you will. But the alternative is simply impossible. In the traditional unionized environment, the means of production can be shut down by a strike action and concessions wrung from the employer. After the strike is over, the means of production fire up again, and the factory or retail space or classroom goes back to business as usual. But with major elements of agriculture, that is not the case. If a cow is not milked, its udders will become engourged and possibly split, leading to infection and even a painful death. If crops are not picked at the moment of ripeness, they will soften and be unsuitable for transport to markets. For some soft fruit, they will spoil, drop to the ground or attract pests in a matter of days. A strike action in an agricultural setting can lead to the destruction of the means of production themselves. Crops won't wait for collective bargaining to run its course. I am sympathetic to the workers on our farms. It is telling how hard the work is that - even in the depths of the 1990-1992 recession, I was one of the only Canadians working with a primarily migrant staff. The potential for exploitation is there, and many farms are industrial-scale operations where unionization could have positive effects on working conditions and productivity. However, it is fanciful to think that a strike of any duration would not cripple the operation almost instantly, and destroy the employment opportunity for the workers themselves.

 

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