Supreme Court Denies Managers’ Right to Unionize 

Understanding the Law
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On April 19, 2024, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered a landmark ruling in a case involving the Association des cadres de la Société des casinos du Québec (Quebec casino managers’ association), closing a years-long debate over whether managers can unionize under the Quebec Labour Code.  

This 138-page judgment rendered in April by Canada’s highest court settles a more than 15-year-old debate over a highly controversial issue in Quebec. The verdict: excluding first-level managers (who supervise operations) from the protections under the Quebec Labour Code does not infringe on their freedom of association, which is enshrined in Quebec and Canada’s charters of rights and freedoms.

Key Points of The Judgment

To fully comprehend the impact of this long-awaited decision on labour law, one must first understand that the Quebec Labour Code defines “employees” quite broadly. However, this definition excludes managers, which means they don’t enjoy the same benefits and legal protections employees do. For instance, managers don’t have access to the same grievance procedure before a specialized administrative tribunal, or to the same strike and lockout rules. 

According to the casino managers’ association, which began the debate when it first lodged the complaint, being excluded from these protections is a clear violation of the freedom of association protected by the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights and freedoms. In November 2009, it filed a petition for certification as a union, even though it represented managers and not employees.  

The Supreme Court determined that there was no charter violation. Though managers don’t have access to the collective bargaining system provided by the Labour Code, the freedom of association they have under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees a process of collective bargaining. This means they can fully exercise their freedom of association even if they aren’t allowed to unionize. 

In its judgment, the Supreme Court found that while the first-level managers are excluded from the Labour Code, they were able to form an association, and succeeded in negotiating a contract that provided for collaboration and consultation on workplace conditions. If the employer fails to comply with its obligations, the association can take the matter before the courts. The casino managers’ association thus failed to show that its members were unable to enjoy their freedom of association or to negotiate collectively with their employer.

Conclusion: it will be very difficult for managers to be certified as a union to represent their members under the Labour Code.

Debate In The Lower Courts 

Prior to this highly anticipated Supreme Court decision, there was no consensus among the lower courts. 

The Tribunal administratif du travail (administrative labour tribunal or TAT) was first to render a decision. In 2016, it ruled that, by excluding managers from the protections enjoyed by employees, the Labour Code violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a manner not demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. Indeed, our Constitution allows legislators to limit certain rights and freedoms if it is in the interest of society.

According to the TAT, the casino managers’ association was deprived of a meaningful, good-faith process for negotiating working conditions. It did not have the right to strike, but had not been offered a viable alternative, which posed a major obstacle to collective bargaining. 

Unhappy with the TAT’s decision, the employer appealed to the Superior Court, which ruled in 2018 that managers’ exclusion under the Labour Code does not infringe on their freedom of association. In 2022, the Quebec Court of Appeal reversed the Superior Court’s decision and restored that of the TAT. The Supreme Court’s decision has now settled this debate. 

Did you know?

This judgment offers a great look at how our justice system works. After the Quebec Court of Appeal, the last court that can address a case is the Supreme Court of Canada. It sits in Ottawa and has only nine judges, three of them from Quebec. It hears only cases that are of major significance to Canadian society.