Robyn Benson, PSAC

Human rights in reverse gear

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By all means, let’s celebrate the 5-4 decision by the US Supreme Court last week to strike down the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) (full text of the decision, with summary, here). It was a nasty, discriminatory piece of federal legislation, signed into law by President Bill Clinton back in 1996, that denied same-sex couples federal benefits available to opposite-sex ones.

But we should pay attention to the reasoning used by the majority. While couched in the language of equality, it’s really all about states’ rights. It’s actually a conservative decision: whom the states join together, let no federal government put asunder.

Only 12 states recognize same-sex marriage. Nothing in this judgement makes it legal in the other 38.

Why is this important? Because the Supreme Court issued another opinion just before this one that turns on the same point. The abolished a key measure in the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required certain heavily discriminatory states to clear with the federal Department of Justice any changes to voting procedures that those states might wish to put into effect.

It took literally a matter of hours for some of those states to start moving. Texas led the pack, (although it could be in for a surprise). North Carolina is in hot pursuit, with a raft of measures to disenfranchise voters. In effect, the bad old days are back.

Here in Canada, Bill C-304, which I blogged about two weeks ago, hurtled through the Senate. It repealed Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which had outlawed the use of telecommunications to transmit hatred against minority groups. There was no sober second thought—the Senators, fresh out of principle after gutting the anti-union C-377, whisked it along, with little debate.

As Liberal Senator James Cowan, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, put it:

Honourable senators, we are here today to debate third reading of Bill C-304. This bill has been presented to us as a defence of the right of freedom of speech. But let us not deceive ourselves. This is not a bill in defence of free speech. This is a bill in defence of hate speech. This is a freedom of hate speech bill.

Precisely. And the only other protections that minorities in Canada have against this sort of thing are in the Criminal Code—which, as I noted in my earlier post, aren’t being enforced even in slam-dunk cases.

We sometimes get a little complacent, it seems to me. We believe in something called progress, where past evils like racism are discarded, and things keep on improving. But, as we have just seen on both sides of the border, a reversal can happen at any time.

Most readers will be familiar with the old refrain, “Well, unions were necessary once, but…” The fact is that history can turn on a dime. We’re watching a concentrated legislative assault on federal public sector unions by a truly hostile government, and even some trial balloons about abolishing the Rand formula.

No need for unions today? The very opposite is true. What we have gained through decades of hard work and struggle is at serious risk of disappearing, just as the rights of minorities to vote in the US, or be free of publicly disseminated hatred here at home, have just disappeared down the rabbit-hole.

“Progress” is just an abstraction. It takes the strong, collective actions of real people to win rights and safeguard them. And the labour movement, defending its members—all of its members, including women and minorities—has always been in the forefront of that never-ending struggle, as it will continue to be. Surely we’ve had enough cold water thrown in our faces recently to wake up and smell what’s brewing—and it ain’t coffee, folks. Let’s rise and shine.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on July 3, 2013 8:44 AM.

The silence of the media was the previous entry in this blog.

Making history is the next entry in this blog.

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