Our colleague here at York and Canada’s foremost labour law scholar, Harry Arthurs, has published another sweeping review of labour law’s past, present, and future. This one is called “Labour Law After Labour”, available here. Harry explains the decline in “labour law” as a function of several factors, including working people’s abandonment of “class” as a defining feature of their lives. Workers align themselves more closely with family, occupation, religion, gender, and age than with “class”, which explains why we see so many working people voting for political parties that support policies that in fact are detrimental to their interests as workers–how else can you explain factory workers who vote for parties who support corporate tax cuts and weakening of labour laws. If workers themselves aren’t pushing for stronger labour rights and labour movements then it is predictable that these things will fall from the political, economic, and social landscape.
Harry notes that it is during “crisis” that focus turns to “ideas”. So he looks around at what “ideas” are emerging to explain what labour law is for today, and in the future. He identifies three options:
1. Labour Law will be embedded in a regime of fundamental universal human rights. We see movement in this direction in recent Supreme Court decisions that have related “freedom of association” in the Charter to core principles in International Labour Organization instruments. Harry is skeptical about the value to workers of going this route.
2. Labour Law should empower workers by accumulating “human capital”. This refers to the idea of abandoning the traditional role of labour law as protector of employee interests through addressing bargaining power and instead focusing on systems that would better enable workers to attain transferable skills and encourage employers to adopt progressive mutual gains workplace practices. Harry notes that to work properly, this strategy requires strong state investment and involvement, something he doubts North American governments will buy into.
3. The purpose of Labour Law should remain unchanged: enable workers to mobilize and seek justice in the workplace. Harry claims that for this to happen, “labour law” needs to be more ambitious, it needs to explore all aspects of the economy and society that influence work in all forms. This will require new types of worker collectives beyond traditional unions, and new broader based strategies to tackle the growing power of capital. Again, Harry is skeptical about whether this can happen in the North American climate.
In typical Harry fashion, despite the gloomy prognosis in the article, he concludes on an optimistic tone:
Still, for their possible shortcomings, these three new approaches represent not only the best approximation of what labour law is likely to look like ‘after labour’ but also a significant advance over what it looks like today.