OTTAWA – The Supreme Court of Canada says the Mounties have the right to engage in meaningful collective bargaining, but has not explicitly stated that they have the right to form a union.
The landmark, 6-1 ruling gives the federal government a year to create a new labour relations scheme, setting the stage for talks among RCMP members, Commissioner Bob Paulson and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney.
The Supreme Court overturned a previous ruling of its own from the 1990s which upheld an exclusion that barred the Mounties from forming unions like federal public servants, who gained the right to collective bargaining in the late 1960s.
The high court says that overturning its precedent “is not a step to be lightly taken” but in this case it was justified because case law has evolved since it ruled in 1999 and it was dealing with a narrower issue then.
The ruling is a major win for RCMP members. It was written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Louis LeBel and will ultimately affect officers across the country.
The court says excluding the Mounties from collective bargaining violates their charter right to freedom of association, but it does not dictate a specific labour relations regime that should be applied to the RCMP.
The ruling says that section 2(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms “protects a meaningful process of collective bargaining that provides employees with a degree of choice and independence sufficient to enable them to determine and pursue their collective interests.”
The court says the Mounties have to be sufficiently independent to have some meaningful form of collective bargaining with management.
“The current RCMP labour relations regime denies RCMP members that choice and imposes on them a scheme that does not permit them to identify and advance their workplace concerns free from management’s influence,” the court said.
Currently, RCMP officers have voluntary associations funded by members’ dues that work with management to establish pay and benefits, but top brass maintains full control over the final result.
The ruling comes one of two cases that the court was asked to revisit.
In the second case, the court dismissed an appeal by two RCMP officers who challenged a government decision to roll back three years of wage increases that were agreed to before the onset of 2008 global financial crisis.
The court upheld the decision by former finance minister Jim Flaherty to bring in wage-restraint legislation that reduced RCMP pay raises from 2008 to 2010.
But the main case, brought by the Mounted Police Association of Ontario and the British Columbia Mounted Police Professional Association on behalf of the entire national police force, opens the door for RCMP to unionize, and engage in collective bargaining.
As the Supreme Court said, this is a right that every other police force in the country currently enjoys.
But the court doesn’t specify what sort of labour relations model should be put in place for the Mounties.
“This Court has consistently held that freedom of association does not guarantee a particular model of labour relations,” says the ruling.
“What is required is not a particular model, but a regime that does not substantially interfere with meaningful collective bargaining.”
The justices dismissed the argument by the federal government that preventing the RCMP from engaging in collective bargaining was warranted to prevent its members from engaging in a “an unlawful strike or other debilitating job action.”
“While the RCMP’s mandate differs from that of other police forces, there is no evidence that providing the RCMP a labour relations scheme similar to that enjoyed by other police forces would prevent it from fulfilling its mandate,” the justices said.
The Canadian Police Association, which represents more than 50,000 officers across the country, said in a statement that the ruling “is about fairness for RCMP members.”