RCMP members have won a long-fought battle for the right to collectively bargain with the government.

In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada has struck down a law that specifically forbade the Mounties from unionizing, saying it violated their charter rights to freedom of association.

The court, however, said forming a traditional union is one option that would restore their collective bargaining rights, but not the only option.

The RCMP has been specifically barred from forming a union since the 1960s, when other federal public servants gained the right to collective bargaining. It's the only police force in Canada with such a restriction.

The Public Service Labour Relations Act currently excludes RCMP members. 

Police Memorial 20140928

The Public Service Labour Relations Act excludes RCMP members from collective bargaining. Friday's Supreme Court of Canada decision considered whether this interferes with Mounties' right to freedom of association. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"We conclude," the Supreme Court majority wrote, "that the s. 2(d) guarantee of freedom of association protects a meaningful process of collective bargaining that provides employees with a degree of choice and independence sufficient to enable them to determine and pursue their collective interests."

It concludes the current regime denies Mounties that choice and "imposes on them a scheme that does not permit them to identify and advance their workplace concerns free from management's influence."

The ruling stops short of endorsing a union as the best solution.

"What is required is not a particular model, but a regime that does not substantially interfere with meaningful collective bargaining and thus complies with [the freedom of association]," the majority wrote.

'No evidence' mandate in jeopardy

Currently, RCMP officers have voluntary associations funded by members' dues that work with management to establish pay and benefits, but top brass maintains full control over the final result.

The justices dismissed the argument by the federal government that preventing the RCMP from engaging in collective bargaining was warranted to prevent its members from engaging in a "an unlawful strike or other debilitating job action."

"While the RCMP's mandate differs from that of other police forces, there is no evidence that providing the RCMP a labour relations scheme similar to that enjoyed by other police forces would prevent it from fulfilling its mandate," the justices said.

'Great day'

“Today is a great day, today is an awesome day for all members in the RCMP," said Rae Banwarie, president of the Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada.

He says Friday's top court ruling is the culmination of years of of work by his association and others, and the goal was never to form a traditional union.

“I will term it the 'police association' because that’s what it is," Banwarie told reporters after the decision was released. "It’s different from a trade union, it’s a police association – there’s no right to strike, nothing like that.”

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called it an "extremely" important ruling for labour rights.

"I couldn't be happier as someone who has always fought for people's labour rights in Canada to have a decision like that from the Supreme Court," Mulcair said.

"Now let's make sure that the government follows through," he continued, "because they haven't had a very good tendency in the past to listen to the Supreme Court."

The top court gave the government 12 months to come up with a new regime that respects the freedom of association and guarantees Mounties' rights to collective bargaining.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney says the government "acknowledges the ruling," and is reviewing it.

Beyond overruling the Ontario Court of Appeal in this case, the Supreme Court has actually reversed one of its own rulings.

In 1999, it upheld the ban on an RCMP union. Last year, the court chose to "revisit" that ruling because this case looked at a broader picture and the jurisprudence around collective bargaining has changed since then.

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With files from The Canadian Press