Canadian labour leaders say they are disturbed — but not shocked — that the Tories have adopted a number of union-busting measures in their official party policy, including support for U.S.-style right-to-work legislation.
Delegates at the Conservative party convention in Calgary last weekend nearly unanimously supported policy proposals that would require enhanced financial transparency from unions and allow members to opt out of contributions to political and social causes.
But the most troubling resolutions for union brass were two successful resolutions that indicated Conservatives support controversial right-to-work legislation that might one day find its way into the government’s platform.
“The Conservatives, at both the federal and Ontario level, have taken a hard shift to the far right, adopting some of the most extreme U.S. Republican-style labour policies,” said York University Labour Law professor David Doorey.
“This plays well to the Conservative base, and I suspect the government will carry through with much of the platform.”
There are already two private members bills before Parliament that would erode union power. Bill C-525 would allow secret ballots in union certification and Bill C-377 would increase unions’ financial reporting. Labour leaders said it’s no surprise those issues were taken up as official party policy and expect a bill on opting out of political contributions to follow.
The policies approved by the grassroots of the party at the convention become party policy but don’t necessarily become part of an election platform or legislation.
The most hotly debated of the labour reforms was one that states the party believes “mandatory union membership and forced financial contributions as a condition of employment limit the economic freedom of Canadians and stifle economic growth.”
It passed with the support of 66 per cent of delegates, but some spoke out against the measure, which calls into question the tenets of the Rand formula, a staple of Canadian labour relations that requires all employees in a unionized environment to pay union dues regardless of whether they join.
“If we adopt this motion we are engaging in something that is highly controversial,” said one delegate.
That opened the doors to an affirmative vote on a policy that explicitly mentions support for a “right-to-work legislation to allow optional union membership”, which passed with a clear majority.
Right-to-work laws would allow workers to refuse to pay the often hundreds of dollars a year in union dues, yet still receive the benefits the union provides in a workplace. Proponents of the laws argue that union wage and benefit demands hurt the economy and encourage employers to ship jobs to cheaper jurisdictions where non-unionized workers are willing to work for less.
But critics, including U.S. President Barack Obama, say the laws have the effect of giving workers the right to work for less pay.
The issue was thrust into the spotlight in Canada after Michigan, which borders Ontario and competes for manufacturing jobs, passed a right-to-work bill in December, making Michigan the 24th right-to-work state.
Ontario Progressive Conservative party Leader Tim Hudak supported Michigan’s move and has claimed General Motors moved its Camaro production to Lansing, Mich. because of the newly enacted right to work laws.
Several union members gathered outside the convention to protest against the Harper government, which has introduced back-to-work legislation and a re-examination of “essential services,” where employees are unable to strike.
Inside, observers from the Canadian Labour Congress could only watch as party members showed their willingness to support anti-union measures.
Ken Georgetti, president of the CLC, said some of the resolutions met with more resistance than he was expecting.
“These aren’t overwhelming mandates that they’re getting,” he said of the most extreme labour reforms, adding that he believes some of the delegates have been misinformed about the perceived benefits of right to work.
“This is not responsible governance or leadership. You don’t counsel people to get free rides in Canada -- you counsel them to pay their fair share,” he said of the legislation that would allow employees to opt out of union dues in a unionized shop.
Meanwhile, Terrance Oakey, president of Merit Canada, celebrated after delegates on the floor passed all of the labour reforms his group has been working for, including secret ballots for certification, financial transparency and opting out of political contributions.
“This is reflective of broad public opinion,” he said, citing a survey by Leger Marketing suggesting 83 per cent of working Canadians believe that unions should be required to publicly disclose detailed financial information.
“Being at the convention it was clear that the mood in the party reflects the mood in the country that something needs to be done on these issues so I wasn’t surprised.”
Oakey said right-to-work legislation is appealing to more members of the party as an increasing number of jobs, especially manufacturing jobs in Ontario, are lost to right-to-work states in the U.S. Some believe that enacting domestic right-to-work legislation would help to stem that tide.
But the right-to-work amendment that’s now part of party policy was extreme even for Oakey. Merit, he said, is not aiming to take away union funding and supports the Rand formula. But Oakey believes modern labour organizations are going beyond their Rand rights by forcing members to fund political causes they don’t support. Canada is the only country in the world that prevents members from opting out, he added.
Oakey doesn’t believe the Harper government will be in any rush to introduce right-to-work legislation, nor would it have much effect as Ottawa is responsible only for federal employees, while the provinces are responsible for regulating the majority of workplaces.
“Prime Minister Harper tends to be an incrementalist, I think he’s likely to watch how the three less contentious issues are dealt with … but I don’t expect a right-to-work policy coming forward -- at least from the government.”
Still, he said, it is indicative of a party that has grown frustrated with the modern labour movement.
Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, the country’s largest union, said the moves are little more than the Conservatives trying to find a new enemy to obfuscate the real issues, including their own accountability crisis in the Senate scandal.
“If you look at all the things that have happened to the Conservatives, they need a wedge issue and they need someone to point the finger at so either they’re going to go after crime or go after unions.”
And while he is highly concerned that the Tories are following the right wing of the U.S. Republicans, he doesn’t believe Canadians will accept right-to-work measures once they learn more about their effects, including higher worker fatality rates, lower family incomes and poorer infrastructure, he said, citing studies of the effects in right-to-work states.
“If they are looking to pick a fight that will eliminate the working class in Canada, then there is going to be a strong reaction.”
Like this article? Follow our Facebook page
Or follow us on Twitter
Also on HuffPost