On Thursday June 6, the Conservatives launched another salvo in their war against working people. Conservative back-bencher Blaine Calkins unveiled a private members' bill (C-525) that will make it far harder to form a new union and much easier to de-certify an existing one.
The legislation will eliminate so-called automatic card check in the federally-regulated sector (telecommunications, banking, transportation etc.). For decades, union certification under the Canada Labour Code has operated this way: a majority (51 per cent) of the members of a workforce are required to sign membership cards and pay five dollars to certify the union. Bill C-525 proposes to eliminate this model for federally-regulated sectors. In its place, the union certification process would require 45 per cent of the members of a bargaining unit to sign cards and once this is reached the Labour Board would call a secret-ballot vote.
There are good reasons why the card-check model has been practiced in federally-regulated sectors. For one, it can be difficult to organize votes for bargaining units spread across the country and transport sector employees are regularly in different places. More importantly, the card-check process protects workers from intimidation. It's widely understood -- confirmed by many academic studies -- that secret-ballot workplace votes reduce union certification as they give employers an opportunity to intimidate employees through compulsory anti-union meetings and implicit threats of job loss.
Not only would C-525 lead to greater employer intimidation, it heavily slants certification votes against unions. In a reversal of long-standing voting traditions, Bill C-525 would require unions receive more than 50 percent of members votes of the proposed bargaining unit rather than 50 percent of votes cast. This means that those who don't vote (maybe because they were on vacation or the employer dissuaded them) are effectively deemed to have voted against unionization. No provincial labour code has this type of provision.
As the president of the Canadian Auto Workers Ken Lewenza pointed out:
"If this same distorted standard of democracy were applied to federal MPs, there would not be a single Conservative member sitting in the House of Commons today. There is no MP in Canada who was elected by over 50 per cent of the voting-age adults in their riding. Why on earth should this test apply to unions, but not MPs?"
The same anti-union bias is at play during a decertification vote. Over 50 percent of the bargaining unit would have to cast a ballot -- regardless of turnout -- in favor of the union to prevent decertification. This will allow a decertification without majority support.
The Conservatives' hostility to organized workers is so strong that they've launched this latest attack even before the Senate has voted on another one of their anti-union private members bills. Currently before the upper chamber, Bill C-377 (An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (labour organizations)) would require every trade union and labour trust to file a public information return with the Canada Revenue Agency on all expenditures over $5,000. It also mandates that labour organizations detail the percentage of time they dedicate to political and lobbying activities. While they've justified this burdensome bill on the grounds that union dues are tax-deductible, the Conservatives are not requiring other professional associations with the same tax status, such as the Canadian Medical Association or Law Societies, to follow the terms of Bill C-377.
In another front in their open war on organized workers, since gaining a majority the Conservatives have repeatedly intervened in labour negotiations on behalf of employers. Harper's Conservatives have used back-to-work legislation to end labour disputes five times in two years (Air Canada in June 2011, September 2011 and March 2012, Canada Post in June 2011 and Canadian Pacific in May 2012). Last month the government's move to restrict Canada Post workers' right to strike was condemned by the International Labour Organization.
In what would be an even more radical attack on collective bargaining, the forthcoming Conservative party convention will debate a series of resolutions that would effectively eliminate unions' financial security and the so-called Rand formula. One proposal explicitly calls for a U.S.-style "right to work legislation to allow optional union membership."
Beyond organized labour, the Conservatives have tried to suppress Canadian workers' wages and conditions by expanding the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, driving down public-sector work conditions and curtailing Employment Insurance benefits. Bill C-525 needs to be seen in the context of the government's low-wage strategy. It's the latest step in the Conservatives' bid to reduce workers' power to the benefit of the business class.
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 Globe and Mail 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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