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.”


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  • 9. Poland (tie) - 10 attempted murders

    As demonstrated by the numerous reports of violations, hostility towards union activity remains commonplace. Undue pressure is often exerted by employers on trade unions and their members. Restrictions on the right tostrike remain excessive.<br> <br> Source: <a href="" target="_hplink">International Trade Union Confederation</a>

  • 9. Kosovo (tie) - 10 attempted murders

    The private sector remains out of reach for trade unions, in spite of the Labour Law that came into force in January 2011, and the Law on Trade Unions adopted in July. Anti-union pressure from employers and inefficient court protection mean that many workers are afraid to join a union, or even to report violations of their rights.<br> <br> Source: <a href="" target="_hplink">International Trade Union Confederation</a>

  • 7. Indonesia (tie) - 2 murders

    Two workers were killed in West Papua when police open fire on striking workers at US-owned Freeport McMoran's Grasberg (FMG) gold and copper mine. Several cases of police assault against striking workers and arrest of union leaders were reported. Indonesian domestic workers - working at home and abroad - faced harsh working conditions. In law and in practice, the right to strikeis nearly impossible to exercise.<br> <br> Source: <a href="" target="_hplink">International Trade Union Confederation</a>

  • 7. Honduras (tie) - 2 murders

    Trade union membership levels remain very low, company unions predominate and temporary employment and subcontracting are reaching alarming proportions. Teachers are continuing the fight to hold on to their rights and to save their pension institute, the Instituto Nacional de Previsión del Magisterio (INPREMA). The teaching union's very existence will come under greater threat with the proposed Education Law, which seeks to privatise education and to repeal the Teachers' Statute. The conflicts with campesino associations in Bajo Aguán, the attacks and attempts to interfere in or even illegalise teachers' organisations, and the murders of trade unionists, journalists and social leaders are clear signs that Honduras has not yet managed to recover from the break with constitutional rule and that its public institutions are still far from being consolidated.<br> <br> Source: <a href="" target="_hplink">International Trade Union Confederation</a>

  • 5. Philippines - 5 murders

    It was another tumultuous and tragic year for the trade union movement in the Philippines. Four trade unionists were murdered and one union member was kidnapped and arbitrarily detained. KMU legal counsel, Remigio Saladero, Jr. was once again the target of dubious government criminal charges. Union busting to avoid or destroy unions continued. <br> <br> Source: <a href="" target="_hplink">International Trade Union Confederation</a>

  • 4. South Korea (tie) - 6 murders

    Police violence and criminal sanctions against strikers continued along with increasing use of law suits claiming huge amounts of damages against strikers and unions. Since the 2008 election of the conservative government, the Korean trade union movement has noted increasing repression and worsening treatment of its members. Employers systematically engage workers on precarious employment contracts specifically to prevent them from forming and joining trade unions. Trade union rights are restricted in the public sector, and amendments to the labour laws in 2010 further restricted union activity.<br> <br> Source: <a href="" target="_hplink">International Trade Union Confederation</a>

  • 4. Palestinian Territories (tie) - 6 murders

    The exercise of freedom of association remains very difficult for most Palestinian workers, especially in Gaza. One trade union leader was sacked during 2011, while the executive of another replaced.<br> <br> Source: <a href="" target="_hplink">International Trade Union Confederation</a>

  • 3. Brazil - 7 murders

    The year 2011 saw major labour disputes in the banking, civil aviation and fertiliser industries. Municipal cemetery worker held important negotiations following a hard-fought labour dispute. Slave-like working conditions still exist and the authorities are keeping up their campaign to track down and prosecute those responsible. Seven rural activists were killed in 2011.<br> <br> Source: <a href="" target="_hplink">International Trade Union Confederation</a>

  • 2. Guatemala - 10 murders

    Guatemala again stood out in 2011, regrettably, as the Central American country characterised predominantly by human rights violations. The right to life of trade union, rural and indigenous community leaders and human rights defenders continued to be violated. Ten trade unionists were assassinated and there were violations of every kind in municipalities, enterprises and maquilas. The Izabal Banana Workers' Unions (SITRABI) was the hardest hit. Guatemala's employers are very conservative and do not respect the right of workers to freedom of association, collective bargaining and decent work. The Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, far from fostering labour rights, is the obedient servant of the national and transnational employers. When there are decisions by the labour courts in favour of the workers, they are not applied.<br> <br> Source: <a href="" target="_hplink">International Trade Union Confederation</a>

  • 1. Colombia - 29 murders, 10 attempted murders

    Although some progress has been made, the longstanding violence against the Colombian trade union movement continues to plague the country and trade unionists are still being killed, forcibly disappeared and intimidated. Twenty nine trade unionists were murdered in 2011. While some efforts have been made to investigate these crimes, the majority of the cases reported by trade union organisations remain unsolved. The state clearly lacks the capacity to protect trade union rights. The vice president of the Republic, speaking on behalf of the government, has recognised the scale of the violence, something previous governments have never done.<br> <br> Source: <a href="" target="_hplink">International Trade Union Confederation</a>