Ont. plans appeal of ruling on ag worker bargaining

The Ontario government will seek leave to appeal a provincial court’s overruling of a law that blocks farm workers from collective bargaining.

A spokesperson for Agriculture Minister Leona Dombrowsky confirmed Wednesday that the province will ask the Supreme Court of Canada to hear its appeal of a Nov. 17 decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal that overturned the Agricultural Employees Protection Act (AEPA).

But the minister’s spokesperson declined any further comment on the case and would not discuss any possible legal grounds on which the province would base an appeal.

But the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW Canada), which challenged the 2003 law in court on behalf of three workers at a Windsor-area mushroom farm, had plenty to say about the province’s plan to appeal, calling it “a page right out of the Mike Harris playbook.”

UFCW Canada’s national president, Wayne Hanley, blasted the current Liberal government’s decision as “cynical politics, played out on the backs of these workers to protect the privileges and special interests of the agriculture lobby.”

Hanley, in a release Wednesday, said Premier Dalton McGuinty “is acting like it is 1995 all over again, when one of the first things Mike Harris did as premier was to strip farm workers of their rights to unionize.”

The AEPA was introduced in 2003 by the Tory government of Ernie Eves, Harris’ successor. The Tories said the act protected the rights of farm employees to associate “while recognizing the unique characteristics of agriculture and the family farm.”

“We’re respecting the individual and constitutional rights of agriculture employees, and protecting Ontario’s harvests and food supply from potentially devastating labour disruptions,” then-agriculture minister Helen Johns said at the time.

The Eves government brought in the AEPA after the Harris government repealed the Agricultural Labour Relations Act, a law from Bob Rae’s previous NDP government that had granted collective bargaining rights to farm workers.

The AEPA instead gave ag workers the right to form and join an employees’ association, or different employees’ associations, and to make representations to their employers through such associations. A union could act as an employees’ association.

But the AEPA was intended to stop far short of collective bargaining, in that it specifically would not grant an employees’ association or union the right of exclusive representation for all of a company’s workers.

“Total disrespect”

Ontario’s appellant court in November 2008 ruled that aspect of the AEPA to be unconstitutional “because it provides no statutory protections for collective bargaining.”

The appeal court said the AEPA “fails to recognize the evolving nature of Ontario agriculture,” such as the general trend toward corporate farms and more complex agribusinesses.

“There is no attempt (in the AEPA) to minimize the impairment (of workers’ bargaining rights) by carving out family farms that are allegedly incompatible with a more formal labour relations regime,” the appeal court said.

The appeal court in November gave the province 12 months to work out its preferred method for “statutorily protecting the rights of agricultural workers to engage in meaningful collective bargaining.”

Now, Hanley said, for the Liberals to instead “attempt to drag this issue back to the highest court in the land again, shows total disrespect for Ontario farm workers — and for Ontario taxpayers who’ve already been forced by their government to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs to delay and deny the democratic rights of these workers.”

Rol-Land Farms, the Windsor-area mushroom company at the heart of UFCW Canada’s court challenge against the AEPA, sought and got creditor protection in mid-December 2008 as “a result of current economic circumstances” but didn’t elaborate on what those circumstances were.

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