Opinion

Harper's Conservatives No Friend to the Union Worker

Promoting class warfare a 'losing strategy,' pundits say. Well, check out these class acts.

By Tom Sandborn 17 Jul 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn lives and works in Vancouver. He has belonged to several unions during his checkered career, and welcomes your feedback and story tips here.

Class warfare is a very bad thing, according to the pundits who create and enforce the limits of acceptable public opinion in Canada. In fact, any mention of class relations or interests other than a pious reference to the "middle class" seems to have been banned across much of the mainstream media. It's become taboo to notice that Canada has a ruling class, and that that class actively intervenes in public life to promote its interests.

In May, columnist John Ivison attacked the federal Liberals for promoting class conflict and jealousy, and sneered that Justin Trudeau, who was then leading the polls, had chosen a "losing strategy" by paying attention to income inequalities in Canada. Earlier, Ivison's fellow pundit Andrew Coyne accused the grassroots group Occupy Canada of promoting a "phony class war," and the National Post accused Stats Canada of the same crime because it had published a study of income inequality.

We can expect the images of feral, left-wing class warriors stalking the nation to be invoked ever more frequently during the run-up to the fall federal election, and for those images to be used more often against the NDP as it climbs in the polls. What will be less common is accounts of the systematic and largely successful class war waged by Stephen Harper's Conservatives since they came to power in 2006. That form of class struggle, imposed from above, will be labeled "prudent economic policy and good governance."

One example of the Harper war on workers is its shambolic cluster of temporary foreign worker programs, which hurt Canadian workers by helping to drive down wages. The government also manages, in a high level exercise in multi-tasking, to hurt the temporary workers imported into Canada too, by limiting their access to the minimal protections available to non-unionized workers. Worse, the TFW programs deny many foreign workers the opportunity to reside here permanently, under the unspoken slogan: "You are good enough to harvest our crops and care for our children and elders, but not good enough to live here as Canadians."

The Harper government launched another attack on working Canadians with its destructive tinkering with Employment Insurance, a social safety net that in the 1980s provided benefits for close to 80 per cent of the unemployed. The 2013 Harper-initiated changes to this program, already diminished by Chrétien era reforms in the mid 1990s, reduced eligibility yet again, and helped create a "surplus" in the program that the Tories, in a widely criticized move, raided to the tune of nearly $2 billion to help balance their last budget.

Since coming to power in 2006, the Harper government has passed a number of bills that weaken and undermine trade unions, a set of actions that looks a lot like class war to me. Here is a list of the most significant ones, drawn from an extensive list compiled by the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights.

• In 2007, Bill C-46, the Railway Continuation Act, ended a railway strike and imposed a final offer selection process on outstanding issues. The act forced 2,800 members of the United Transportation Workers Union at CN Rail back to work -- drivers, yardmasters, and trainmen who had rejected the employer's last offer by a nearly 80 per cent margin. The 2007 act is in the grand tradition of Canadian back-to-work legislation: the first such law was passed in 1950 to break a strike against both major national rail companies. About 124,000 workers were forced to end their strike.

• In 2009, Bill C-10, which included both the Expenditure Restraint Act and the Equitable Compensation Act, imposed salary caps on raises for federal employees and prohibited non-wage increases, such as allowances, bonuses, differentials and premiums. It also overrode some raises that had already been negotiated. The large budget bill also took away the right for public sector unions to file pay equity complaints collectively to the Human Rights Commission, and set a $50,000 fine for unions that helped individual women make such complaints.

• In 2011, Bill C-6, the Restoring Mail Delivery for Canadians Act, forced 48,000 locked-out postal workers back to work and imposed wage raises lower than those the employer had agreed to earlier in the dispute. A complaint was filed by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers with the International Labour Organization in August 2011. An ILO committee ruled in June 2013 that Bill C-6 violated its freedom of association principles, and a Charter challenge to this legislation is currently before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

• In 2012, Bill-33, the Protecting Air Service Act, interfered in bargaining between Air Canada and its employees, prevented strike action, and imposed a settlement. The International Labour Organization issued a ruling that held the law breached ILO conventions on freedom of association, the right to organize and collective bargaining. The ILO has condemned Canadian federal and provincial labour legislation 73 times since 1982.

• In 2012, Bill C-39, the Restoring Rail Service Act, ended a six-day strike at CP Rail by 4,800 conductors and engineers, and imposed a government appointed arbitrator with no allowance of the union to challenge the appointment.

• In 2013, Bill C-60, the Economic Action Plan 2013 Act No. 1, allowed the federal cabinet to intervene and give orders to managers at Crown corporations about bargaining with employees. The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a pro-CBC watchdog organization, has expressed concerns about the impact of this bill on the autonomy of collective bargaining at the broadcaster.

"Without change, Bill C-60 will give government the power to remove the conditions which underpin the integrity of CBC's journalists, editors, producers, writers and broadcasters and empower them to provide independent coverage of the government," said Ian Morrison, a spokesperson for the group. "The government would do this by directly manipulating their working conditions, collective agreements, pay and benefits -- a degree of interference with a public broadcaster that is unheard of in the free world today,"

Chris Aylward, national executive vice president of the Public Service Alliance Canada, expressed similar concerns. The bill "essentially gives the Treasury Board unfettered authority to interfere in bargaining with Crown corporations, removing effective control from the parties most directly affected," he said. "This is not a recipe for healthy labour relations."

There is also reason to believe that the long drawn out negotiations at the Canada Revenue Agency, where unionized workers have not been able to attain a renewed contract since their last agreement expired in 2012, have been frustrated by the presence at the bargaining table of representatives of Treasury Board, a presence mandated by C-60.

• In 2013, Bill C-4, the Economic Action Plan 2013 Act No. 2, allowed the federal government to unilaterally define any employee's work as essential, and thus prevent that worker from taking job action. It also changed the definition of dangerous work for federal employees, causing considerable confusion in workplaces.

• In 2014, Bill C-525, the Employees' Voting Rights Act, makes it harder to certify a union to represent a group of workers. Previously, a union trying to organize a group could trigger an automatic certification if it presented sign-up cards from 50 per cent plus one of the workers at a workplace. Under C-525, no automatic certification is allowed, and the union must present sign-up cards from 45 per cent of the workforce (up from 35 per cent under earlier law) just to trigger a vote.

These new and stricter requirements make it harder for workers to organize, and create longer delays between the beginning of an organizing drive and its conclusion, allowing the employer to lean on workers and threaten them with negative consequences if they vote to unionize.

The new law also makes it easier for an employer to get an existing union de-certified at its operation. While prior legislation required a majority vote by workers to trigger a de-certification vote, under C-525 if the employer can show that 40 per cent of the workers in the unit want to de-certify, a vote must be held to determine whether the union contract will stay in place.

• In 2015, Bill C-377, an act to amend the Income Tax Act, will require unions to undertake far more detailed and public financial disclosures than those required from businesses. Critics point out that most union members already have easy access to their organization's financial records, making the extra work and possibly increased vulnerability entailed by these disclosures both time consuming and expensive for the union. Canadian Labour Congress head Hassan Yussuf has said that his organization will challenge the bill in the upcoming federal election and then, if a new government unwilling to change the law is elected, in the courts.

Wage workers, hear this

Since 1982, the governments of Canada and the provinces have enacted 216 pieces of anti-union legislation. These draconian bills have been sponsored by all three major parties, including, at times, the NDP. That said, the Harper government has brought a special brand of fierce, malicious enthusiasm to its approach to labour relations

So what, beyond standard issue right-wing, anti-union ideology, makes attacks on unions so appealing to the Tories? Here's one thought. If unions can be undermined and weakened, it means big profit increases for the business interests that support the ruling party. Currently, even in their weakened state, Canadian unions deliver a significant 30 per cent average wage advantage to their members, compared to average wages paid non-unionized workers. This translates into an average $5.17 an hour advantage for unionized workers. For unionized women, the advantage is $6.89 an hour, and for unionized young workers between 15 and 24, the advantage is a more modest, but still significant $3.16 an hour.

We are due for a federal election this fall. Anyone who works for wages, or who values the immense contributions that workers and unions have made to the quality of life in our country, would be wise to consider the current government's dismal record of attacks on working people when casting a ballot.  [Tyee]

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