06/01/2012 04:48 EDT | Updated 08/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Mounties may always get their man, but can't get a union, court rules

TORONTO - The Mounties may always get their man but, Ontario's top court ruled Friday, they don't get their union.

The ruling in favour of the federal government upholds a section of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Regulations, which establishes a mechanism under which officers interact with management.

The mechanism — the staff relations representative program — came in response to the fact that RCMP officers are specifically exempt from the Public Service Relations Act under which most federal employees can form unions.

Several RCMP associations, which want to represent RCMP members in collective bargaining through traditional unions, argued the regulations violate their Charter right to freedom of association in the labour context.

In a ruling that overturned a lower court decision in favour of the associations, the Appeal Court disagreed.

"There is more than one conception of collective bargaining," the Appeal Court ruling states.

"The Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that (the Charter) does not guarantee any particular model of labour relations."

The staff relations representative program was established by regulation in 1974 to address labour issues with RCMP management, which always has the final say.

The same regulations also bar officers from criticizing the force publicly.

In April 2009, Justice Ian MacDonnell of the Ontario Superior Court sided with the Mounted Police Association of Ontario and the British Columbia Mounted Police Professional Association — private independent Mountie organizations not recognized by management — in finding the regulations breached their Charter rights.

MacDonnell ruled the staff relations representative program was not an independent association formed or chosen by RCMP members, and that it served a strictly consultative function that did not amount to collective bargaining.

In response, Ottawa argued the program affords employee participation in the decision-making process, and that the process is constitutionally sound.

The associations said because the program is merely consultative and management has the final say, the system could hardly be called collective bargaining.

The Appeal Court, however, said the associations had an "expansive concept" of the constitutionally guaranteed right to collective bargaining.

The Charter protection applies only to the right to make collective representations and to have those representations considered in good faith, the court found.

The court also noted RCMP members have been able to form voluntary independent associations in several provinces.

"It is not effectively impossible for RCMP members to act collectively to achieve workplace goals," the ruling states.

The Canadian Police Association and l'Association des membres de la police montee du Quebec had intervened in support of the two associations.