Mounties win bargaining rights at top court

Supreme Court strikes down rule banning RCMP from forming union
By Sabrina Nanji
|Canadian Labour Reporter|Last Updated: 02/03/2015

The country’s top police have up until now been the only force without the right to collectively bargain — that is, until a decision at the Supreme Court turned that rule on its head.

In mid-January, the RCMP and its employer, the federal Treasury Board and public safety ministry, listened to the final decision in a case for the right to collectively bargain, which the Mounties initially brought to an Ontario courtroom in 2006.

In its 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court determined the denial of the right to form a union and collectively bargain an employment agreement violated the RCMP’s right to freedom of association, which is guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The victory was a long time coming, according to Rob Creasser, a spokesperson for the Mounted Police Professional
Association of Canada in Vancouver, who said the decision left him "over the moon."

"The current staff relations system had a lot of concerns, and in bringing them forward to either management or the Treasury Board, there was more begging than bargaining," he explained. "There was nothing compelling people on the other side of the table to act on issues being brought forward."

Of particular concern for the federal government was that a strike or labour action would have the potential to disrupt public safety. But the point is moot, noted Selwyn Pieters, a Toronto-based labour lawyer, as all police bodies in the country have the right to bargain and most are even unionized.

Should both parties hit a wall during negotiations, what's more likely to happen is a third-party arbitrator would be called in, Pieters said, adding that the government has the unequivocal power to dictate what is considered an essential service and can legislate police back to work.

In fact, Creasser said, an arbitrator would buffer talks at the bargaining table.

"We’re hoping the model that’s chosen will involve management and the Treasury Board and our collective bargaining agents and that they can come to some type of agreement — but, if not, we’re hoping for third-party binding arbitration," Creasser said. "There’s glue to make people bargain because the decision you may get from an arbitrator may not make anybody happy. So there’s some impetus to get a deal done at the table."

In the 1960s, an RCMP-specific labour relations rubric was established that gave the commissioner the final word when it came to employment conditions.

It was through such an antiquated system that the rank and file fell through the cracks, said Creasser, adding that a collective agreement or labour association would keep top brass accountable.

"The RCMP managers could not have done a better job of creating an environment where people wanted to unionize — and then they did," he said.

And through collective bargaining and a negotiated contract, the police force can change its internal culture.

"It’s an important decision because the court system within the RCMP is broken," said Pieters. "A system of collective bargaining will allow RCMP officers to bargain for training, better pay, proper supervision and proper equipment."

Pieters cited the recent slew of deaths — including the slaying of three officers last summer in Moncton, N.B., and one earlier this year in St. Albert, Alta. — within the force that, while they may not have been prevented, would certainly have been brought to light had a collective agreement or union raised concerns of resources and training.

Room for interpretation

What form a representative body will take at the RCMP has yet to be determined.

Because the Supreme Court judges stopped just shy of outright suggesting a union, it leaves room for interpretation as to what form the collective will take — such as a staff association, an RCMP-led standalone union or even a third-party union, like Unifor.

Though the national police force has had a staff association for some time, it yielded only tepid results, said Ann Frost, an associate professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University in London, Ont., who specializes in organizational behaviour.

"They’ve had a staff association that basically could meet with management and air grievances, and management had to listen in good faith — however you define that," she explained. "There was no real power behind the staff association. It’s great to have a voice and make your concerns known to management, but when the final decision still rests with management — there’s not a lot of power behind that."

It is because of this Frost predicts the Mounties will opt for certification and a definitive union as opposed to a staff association akin to the WestJet flight attendants’ association. Despite previous unsuccessful attempts to unionize at the Calgary-based airline, its employee association managed to bargain a collective agreement.

But for Creasser, how the RCMP get there is not as important as the destination itself.

"We’re getting caught in semantics here," he said. "We want a collectively bargained agreement. Whether we call ourselves a union or an association, at the end of the day, what we want is a legally binding document that will hold people accountable."

The federal government has one year to redraft legislation currently governing the national police force to include the new labour relations scheme.

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