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Will America's Anti-Union Spasm Engulf Canada?

Fraser Institute conservatives openly wish for it, unions rally to vow 'no way.'

Tom Sandborn 18 Apr

Tom Sandborn is a contributing editor of The Tyee with a focus on labour and health policy issues. Read his previous stories here. Tom can be reached with feedback or story tips here.

The right-wing drive to strip public sector unions of contracts, pensions and rights won over years of service and collective bargaining -- it's not just a Wisconsin story anymore. All over the U.S., Republican politicians are making headway in trying to copy the sweeping rollback by Wisconsin's Tea Party-backed governor, Scott Walker.

And here in Canada, both the right and the union movement are alert to the potential for a spillover effect.

"We Need Scott Walker Here" was the headline topping an article by Fraser Institute economists Milagros Palacios and Niels Veldhuis published in the Financial Post three weeks before the current election got underway. At a moment when poll numbers indicated Harper's Conservatives were verging into majority territory, Palacios and Velduis wrote "our politicians should take a page from Governor Walker's playbook and roll back the wage premium. Canadian governments should also restrict collective bargaining in the public sector by banning the right to strike for public sector employees and having their wages and benefits linked to private sector counterparts."

The moment is hardly lost on British Columbia's trade unions, either. In recent weeks, their members and supporters have rallied for a demonstration in downtown Vancouver and a larger action at the Peace Arch border, voicing support for workers in Wisconsin and across the U.S. who they say are facing Tea Party inspired assaults on collective bargaining rights. This was not just an exercise in international solidarity, speakers insisted at both actions. A real danger exists, they argued, that similar damage to workers' rights could happen in Canada.

BMO and union busters

The downtown Vancouver rally, held March 22 outside the annual general meeting of Bank of Montreal shareholders at the posh Four Seasons Hotel, was prompted by the recent decision by BMO to buy an American bank, Marshall & Ilsley (M&I). M&I executives were key financial backers of Governor Walker, whose administration brought in the union-busting laws that provoked weeks of mass demonstrations in Wisconsin in February and March.

Critics have raised questions about why BMO bought an underperforming Midwestern bank, paid off its enormous Troubled Assets Relief Program debt to the U.S. government and then issued the M&I executives who had created that debt multi-million dollar severance payments.

More than 700 pieces of anti-union legislation similar to Wisconsin's new law are now being proposed in the U.S., with efforts to carve away union rights occurring in nearly every state, the L.A. Times reported.

"If BMO is OK with backing union busters in the U.S.," asked the fliers distributed outside the bank meeting, "what are their plans for Canada?"

Laurie Grant, a media spokesperson for Bank of Montreal, told The Tyee that BMO's Canadian experience would be helpful to the American bank they had acquired. She said her firm had no choice but to make the controversial severance payments to M&I executives. The payments were, she insisted, contractual and legal. She said that BMO had no intentions of taking anti-union positions in Canada, noting that no Canadian bank workers are unionized.

"Non-union is the industry standard," she said.

'Crisis not caused by decent pensions': BCFed's Sinclair

On April 2, a rally co-sponsored by the B.C. Federation of Labour and union centrals from Washington State and Oregon drew more than 2,000 demonstrators to the Peace Arch border crossing. The event was one of more than 1,000 "We Are One" rallies held across the U.S., organized by the AFL-CIO, America's largest union umbrella group. A gallery of pictures from the rally is available here.

According to B.C. Fed president Jim Sinclair, writing in an editorial published in the Victoria Times Colonist with Jeff Johnson and Tom Chamberlain, officers from the two American labour groups that co-sponsored the Peace Arch rally:

"The same right wing leaders who advocated shipping good private-sector jobs overseas are now claiming to represent the people against public sector wages and benefits. The economic crisis was not caused by good paycheques or decent pensions, but rather the declining number of these in both the private and the public sector... With unions gone, the wealthy will simply get more and more of what they want."

What the rich want in America, and may well set out to achieve in Canada as well, is a far weaker union movement than has existed on this continent in many decades, according to teachers' union officer Betsy Kippers, who attended the BMO stockholder's meeting armed with proxies for 3,225 shares in the Canadian bank. Kippers, a teacher with more than 30 years of experience and now vice president of the 98,000 member Wisconsin Educational Council, spoke with The Tyee the day before her appearance at the bank's AGM.

"What the governor is doing in Wisconsin," Kippers said, "was never about fiscal needs. This is all about taking back rights from working class families."

'Move Your Money' campaign

Marc Norberg, a burly officer from the Sheet Metal Workers International Association who attended the BMO meeting with Kippers, told The Tyee about a fight-back campaign his organization has helped to develop in the U.S. Urging union members and pension funds to withdraw their money from M&I branches, the "Move Your Money" campaign has been conducting demonstrations outside 60 to 70 M&I branches every week, and in two cases prompted large enough withdrawals that the affected branches had to shut down for the day.

"What's wild about this effort," Norberg said, "is that often customers go into the bank, withdraw all their money and come out and show the withdrawal slips to our demonstrators."

Norberg said that local businesses had been dropping by his group's picket lines with coffee and snacks to support their campaign.

Not everyone, of course, supports union efforts. Kippers said that the attack across America on trade union rights is being orchestrated by the newly emerged and powerful right-wing Tea Party-type groups.

"It's all about privatization and corporate wealth," she charged. "We have to move now from being a protest to being a movement. Governor Walker has awakened a sleeping giant."

There was little sign of sleepiness at the Canada-U.S. border crossing at the Peace Arch on April 2, as a boisterous crowd of more than 2,000 cheered speakers from both sides of the border issuing calls for solidarity and shared fight back.

"I look at Stephen Harper and I think, 'There's our Wisconsin. He hates unions. He always has,'" Sinclair told the crowd.

B.C. Teachers Federation president Susan Lambert, who acted as rally MC, took a moment to send a Twitter message from the stage, "Democracy. You use it or you lose it."

CLC's Georgetti pledges cross-border support

Canadian Labour Congress head Ken Georgetti told the crowd he had never seen such concern and support from Canadians as he was seeing in response to the attacks on Wisconsin workers.

"I was in Washington D.C. and I told the leadership of the AFL-CIO that we'll be there in support," Georgetti said.

He closed his speech by noting that nothing in either of Canada's official languages was sufficiently strong to express his response to Governor Walker and his anti-union accomplices. However, citing his own Italian heritage, Georgetti said he had one message for the governor, a message he illustrated with a classic Italian gesture involving using one hand to slap his bicep while brandishing the other in a clenched fist. Voices from the crowd provided the verbal version -- "Va Fongool!" (an Americanized pronunciation of the Italian curse vaffanculo or vai in culo.)

Marjorie Griffin Cohen, who teaches economics and women's studies at SFU, has been watching the attempts in the U.S. to reduce the power of public sector unions with interest.

"When you attack public sector unions, you are attacking women," Griffin Cohen told The Tyee. "Can what's happening in the U.S. happen in Canada? Of course it can, and in fact it has happened. Just look at the BC Liberals' assaults on health care workers and teachers rights, both since overturned by the courts. While we should be concerned, we should also recognize that that the situation in Canada is different."

In Canada, she said, unions are still stronger than in the U.S., and have been able to win recognition that collective bargaining is a Charter-protected right.  [Tyee]

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