The world’s largest confederation of labour groups has criticized the Conservative government in a new report, saying Ottawa’s repeated use of back-to-work legislation is the primary reason Canada has become a more hostile place for trade unions in 2011.
In its Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights, released on Wednesday, the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) named Canada as one of the democratic countries where governments “attacked trade union rights” last year.
“Government tampering with worker rights is becoming a norm with anti-union practices on the rise,” the ITUC observes.
“[The] Conservative Harper Government has taken the lead in attacking freedom of association and collective bargaining rights in its own jurisdiction, sending strong signals to other levels of government that it’s ‘open season’ on workers and trade union rights [...] despite Supreme Court rulings that recognize these rights as cornerstones of industrial relations.”
Describing back-to-work legislation as the “hallmark” of Ottawa’s “direct attack to certain sectors,” the ITUC cites the government’s intervention in the Canada Post and Air Canada disputes as evidence of a “worrisome track record.”
“The [International Labour Organization] notion of ‘essential services’ is being distorted by governments to broadly argue against so-called economic impacts of strikes on the economy and social well-being,” the survey maintains.
Denis Lemelin, national president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, was one of several labour leaders who expressed support for the ITUC findings on Wednesday.
He says the survey is in line with what he has been arguing since last June, when Ottawa pushed through back-to-work legislation to end a lockout after just one day, and hopes the report will help strengthen the case of the union, which has filed a constitutional challenge over the bill.
“[This is] another group that is really showing what the Harper government is doing is really to change the political environment and economical environment in Canada,” he told The Huffington Post. “The Harper government is really attacking the labour movement.”
George Smith, a Queen's University labour relations expert and vocal critic of the recent examples of federal government intervention in strikes and lockouts, describes the survey as “positive proof that the world is watching.”
“This just reinforces some of the commentary that’s been surrounding these unprecedented and preemptive interventions. [It’s] interesting that it doesn’t seem to have any traction in Canada, and yet internationally, it does,” he said.
“I’m guessing that this isn’t going to cause Prime Minister Harper and [Labour Minister Lisa Raitt] to lose sleep, but at the same time, it’s just little grains of sand that eventually make up a beach.”
In an e-mail to The Huffington Post, Minister Raitt said she had read the survey, and wished to “clarify” her view on when it’s appropriate to step into labour disputes.
“The preference in every situation is always for parties to resolve their own labour dispute and negotiate an agreement. However, in situations where parties are unable to reach an agreement our government will be forced to weigh the rights of the employers and union against the public interest," she said.
“[This] government intervenes in strikes or lockouts only in cases of national economic significance or public interest.”
The survey also takes aim at a Conservative private member’s bill, currently working its way through Parliament, that would require unions to publicly disclose their finances.
The ITUC argues these changes will increase the financial burden on unions and provide employers with “detailed information about union operations at taxpayers' expense.”
“The introduction of a similar private members' bill in British Columbia, with Saskatchewan intimating it might do the same, raises the specter of a coordinated attack in a number of jurisdictions,” the report concludes.
There are a number of other trends at the provincial level that the ITUC sees as “undermining” union rights, including: the denial of collective bargaining rights to farm workers in Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick; inaction on the part of B.C. legislators following a provincial supreme court ruling that found that it was illegal to remove the right of teachers to negotiate class size and composition through collective bargaining; and a lack of provisions against the use of so-called strike-breakers in many jurisdictions.
But while Canada may have been singled out among democratic nations, we are hardly the worst offender cited in the ITUC survey.
In 2011, at least 76 workers died as a result of their trade union activities, with the majority of those deaths occurring in Latin America, including 29 in Colombia and 10 in Guatemala, the ITUC reports. An additional eight trade unionists died in Asia, four of whom had played a prominent role in defending workers rights in the Philippines.
By contrast, there were no instances of murder, attempted murder, arrest or imprisonment linked to trade union activities in Canada last year.
But according to Barbara Byers, executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress and a worker representative for the International Labour Organization, that’s no reason to be complacent about the observed deterioration of basic collective bargaining rights.
“We shouldn’t be saying that the worst examples make us look better. We should be saying that the best examples are the ones we should be aiming for,” she said.
“We hope that the Canadian government will pay attention to [the report] and that they will want to make changes.”