The Universal Declaration of Human Rights espouses 30 rights that every individual has in civil society.
These rights vary from general and idealistic rights (such as the right to life, liberty and security of person) to more specific provisions for life in communities and in a global world (such the right to make a living through fair and safe work, the right to movement and residence within and across national borders, or the right to marry and have a family). These rights speak to life in communities, but they are fundamentally individual.
This isn’t surprising to us. Most of the language surrounding justice and “rights” in Western society – including our own Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – has centred on the notion of the individual. I have rights. You have rights. We collectively share the same rights, but often what is seen as “owed” to us is owed to us primarily as individuals.
Certainly, there is an undeniable individual aspect to justice. We affirm the dignity of individuals and, as a union, CLAC advocates on behalf of each member, believing that each experience of personal injustice is worth addressing for its own merits. Justice must listen to each person and each story.
But what if individual justice is an incomplete vision for justice?
If we approach justice as a purely individual framework, or through a traditionally retributive model (pitting one party against another), are we missing out on the fullness of what justice is meant to be for our communities and workplaces?
Admittedly, unpacking what we actually mean when we talk about “justice” is a quagmire. But I want to put forward a simple suggestion that undergirds much of what we aim to do and be as a union.
Justice, we believe, must be both individual and relational.
One without the other is an incomplete approach that falls short of the potential of true justice. To make justice entirely individual is an incomplete effort that will result in an incomplete solution. Humanity is inherently communal: arranged in families, neighbourhoods, workplaces and communities, on both a micro and macro scale. Any remedies for injustice (a breakdown of healthy relationships and an obstacle to shared human flourishing) must take collective and relational realties into account.
This is an area where progressive labour unions are uniquely positioned to bring about lasting social change. Much of the history of unions is rooted in an understanding that individual notions of justice must have a relational or communal expression.
There’s a reason – beyond catchy branding – that CLAC uses the phrase “better together” to guide our work. Our solidarity affirms that the interests and objectives of a group carry a weight beyond that of any individual on their own. Our whole is indeed greater than the sum of our parts.
The progressive labour movement affirms the relational rights and responsibilities of all parties – regardless of their position “at the table.” We simply cannot look through an individual lens when we work to address collective issues. We must aim to serve the greater good.
Effective solutions must be rooted in a collaborative and relational approach that looks to affirm what is best for an organization, workplace, or social group as a whole – not diminishing individual justice, but expanding upon it.