A majority of Canadians — 56 per cent — hold favourable views of unions, and an even larger majority opposes “right to work” laws backed by some Conservatives, a new survey finds.

The Harris/Decima survey, carried out for the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), found 70 per cent of Canadians say unions are “still needed,” compared to fewer than 30 per cent who say they are obsolete.

And by a two-to-one margin, respondents said everyone who benefits from a union’s services should be required to pay dues to that union. That flies in the face of some Conservative politicians’ push towards “right to work” laws, which allow union members to opt out of paying dues.

Critics say Saskatchewan’s new labour law paves the way for such “right to work” laws. Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak is making “right to work” a part of his platform.

It’s a pleasant surprise that in spite of the anti-union posturing by the federal and some provincial governments, most Canadians continue to hold positive views of unions and employee associations,” CAUT’s associate executive director, David Robinson, said in a statement.

Check out the full survey results (story continues below)

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  • Labour Day: A Canadian Invention

    Few Canadians realize it, but Labour Day is as Canadian as maple bacon. It all began in 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to demand a nine-hour workday. When <i>Globe and Mail</i> chief George Brown had the protest organizers arrested, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald passed a law legalizing labour unions. Thus, a Conservative prime minister became a hero to the working class, and Canada became among the first countries to limit the workday, doing so decades before the U.S. The typographers' marches became an annual event, eventually being adopted by the U.S., becoming the modern day Labour Day.

  • The Winnipeg General Strike

    The end of World War I brought social instability and economic volatility to Canada. On May 15, 1919, numerous umbrella union groups went out on strike in Winnipeg, grinding the city to a halt. Protesters were attacked in the media with epithets such as "Bolshevik" and "Bohunk," but resistance from the media and government only strengthened the movement. In June, the mayor ordered the Mounties to ride into the protest, prompting violent clashes and the death of two protesters. After protest leaders were arrested, organizers called off the strike. But the federal mediator ended up ruling in favour of the protesters, establishing the Winnipeg General Strike as the most important strike in Canadian history, and a precursor to the country's modern labour movement.

  • The Regina Riot

    During the Great Depression, the only way for a single male Canadian to get government assistance was to join "relief camps" -- make-work projects set up by the federal government out of concern idle young men were a threat to the nation. The relief camps, with their poor work conditions, became breeding grounds for communists and other radicals. The "On-To-Ottawa Trek" was organized as a protest that would move from Vancouver across the country to Ottawa, to bring workers' grievances to the prime minister. The trek halted in Regina when Prime Minister R.B. Bennett promised to talk to protest organizers. When talks broke down, the RCMP refused to allow the protesters to leave Regina and head for Ottawa, and on June 26, 1935, RCMP riot officers attacked a crowd of protesters. More than 100 people were arrested and two killed -- one protester and one officer.

  • Bloody Sunday

    In May, 1938, unemployed men led by communist organizers occupied a post office and art gallery in downtown Vancouver, protesting over poor work conditions at government-run Depression-era "relief camps." In June, the RCMP moved in to clear out the occupiers, using tear gas inside the post office. The protesters inside smashed windows for air and armed themselves with whatever was available. Forty-two people, including five officers, were injured. When word spread of the evacuation, sympathizers marched through the city's East End, smashing store windows. Further protests against "police terror" would be held in the weeks to come.

  • Giant Mine Bombing

    In 1992, workers at Royal Oak Mines' Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories went on strike. On September 18, a bomb exploded in a mineshaft deep underground, killing nine replacement workers. Mine worker Roger Warren was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder. The Giant Mine closed in 2004.

  • The Toronto G20

    The Canadian Labour Congress, representing numerous labour groups, participated in protests in Toronto during the G20 summit in June, 2010. When a handful of "Black Block" anarchists rioted through the city core, it brought an overwhelming police response that resulted in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. More than 1,000 people were arrested, with most never charged with any crime. Numerous allegations of police brutality have been made, and the Toronto police are now the target of several multi-million dollar lawsuits. So far, two police officers have been charged with crimes relating to G20 policing, and charges against other police officers are also possible.

  • Occupy Canada

    When Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters suggested the public "occupy Wall Street" to protest corporate malfeasance, New Yorkers took the suggestion seriously, and occupied Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Canadians followed suit, sparking copycat occupations in all major Canadian cities in September, 2011. By December, most of the occupations had been cleared, all of them non-violently. Though the protests achieved no specific goals, they did change the political conversation in North America. What their long-term legacy will be remains to be seen.

But when it comes to unions’ influence on Canada, public opinion is split. Some 45 per cent of respondents said unions have too much influence over government and business, with around 35 per cent disagreeing.

A recent Conference Board of Canada report warned that 2014 could be a year of labour strife in Canada. The report noted that half a million public sector workers will be involved in collective bargaining next year.

Eighteen public sector labour groups are launching a lawsuit against the federal government over changes to labour laws that they say will make work conditions less safe, and undermine collective bargaining rights.

The Tories’ changes give the government greater control over which public sector workers can and can’t strike, and gives them more influence over arbitrators, to ensure their decisions line up with government objectives.

The Harris/Decima poll found 42 per cent of Canadians say the government should not be allowed to impose contracts on public sector workers. Forty per cent say the government should have that right.

The poll was carried out by telephone and sampled 2,000 Canadians between Nov. 7 and Nov. 18, 2013. It's considered accurate within 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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