A number of labour reform proposals on the agenda at this weekend’s Conservative party convention could be signs that the party is shifting further to the right, political observers say.
At least nine resolutions for amendments to the Conservative party’s policy book seek to crack down on the power of organized labour. The labour reform proposals are sponsored by various riding associations in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.
Many call for an end to union political involvement, but one amendment seeks a more radical change to 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.
The number of proposals and the radical nature of a few of them suggest that the party is taking a cue from the American right wing, said Peter Woolstencroft, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo who focuses on the history of the Conservative party.
“In the Conservative party in the last little while there has been regard for what’s happening in the United States,” he said. “Right to work and other pieces of legislation or actions have been pointing towards cutting back on the power of unions.”
Some Conservatives, notably Ontario’s Tim Hudak and MP Pierre Poilievre, have been vocal in their support for U.S. “right-to-work” style laws since last December, when Michigan became the 24th state to make compulsory union dues illegal.
Such laws have become increasingly popular since the 2008-2009 recession as a means to lure businesses into economically depressed states but have also attracted criticism. U.S. President Barack Obama has said the title is a misnomer for laws that really mean “the right to work for less money.”
The Conservative association of Poilievre’s riding is one of the most overt in calling to end mandatory union membership. The Tory government has previously shot down suggestions the Conservatives are considering such legislation and Labour Minister Kellie Leitch declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Leitch said earlier this week that the Minister would not “speculate on the potential outcomes of the convention”.
The Perth-Wellington electoral district association in southern Ontario was the only one actually to mention right-to-work by name in its proposal. Its amendment seeks Conservative support for “right-to-work legislation to allow optional union membership including student unions.”
The amendment proposed by Poilievre’s Nepean-Carleton riding near Ottawa says that “unions should be democratic and voluntary,” that labour laws should provide workers with “protections against forced union dues for political and social causes that are unrelated to the workplace”. It also says labour laws should respect the UN Declaration on Human Rights article stating that “no one may be compelled to belong to an association.”
An equally aggressive amendment comes from the Alfred-Pellan electoral district association, whose head office in Laval is calling on the party to support a restructuring of the “legislative protection of the Rand formula so as to provide full and effective protection to the right of all workers not to associate with broad political positions they deem oppressive of their respective personal identities.”
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The proposals are not out of the Tory blue. Issues such as right-to-work and elimination of the Rand principle have always been discussed in party circles but have not necessarily made it onto the agenda until now, Woolstencroft said.
However Woolstencroft believes that the most radical proposals are likely to be left on the convention floor.
“The bulk of the party knows that they have a PR game that they’re playing, and they don’t want to be easily castigated as anti-this or anti-that,” he said. “So what they’re going to do is move incrementally.”
In any case, resolution at the federal level would mostly be paying lip service to the elimination of mandatory union dues. Labour laws, are provincially administered and regulated outside of federally regulated businesses and federal public sector employees.
Still, the nine labour-related initiatives have already successfully passed the scrutiny of the party’s national policy committee, where national and political wings of the party debated and whittled down a list of 274 proposals. That signals that the party’s policy wonks believe the proposals are at least worth consideration.
The initiatives will be voted on during closed-door sessions. If any receives a majority of delegate votes, it could be included in the 10 policy resolutions placed on the plenary agenda. In the plenary session, the proposal can be adopted into party policy if it gets enough votes.
The Tories seems to be seizing on a moment when unions are vulnerable amid declining membership and loss of public favour, Woolstencroft said.
Canada’s two largest unions, The Canadians Auto Workers and Communication, Energy and Paper Workers Union, merged into a super-union in September, acknowledging that the labour movement needs more heft if it wants to survive. And the newly created Unifor union wasted no time in declaring its political intentions. At its founding convention, Naomi Klein spoke of ousting Prime Minister Stephen Harper and one of its first acts was to endorse NDP MP Olivia Chow for mayor of Toronto.
Perhaps it is no surprise then that a common thread among the convention proposals is preventing unions from becoming politically involved.
One proposal from Edmonton-Sherwood Park asks the party to amend its labour policy to include the belief that “the government should prevent mandatory dues collected by unions from being diverted to fund political causes unrelated to workplace needs.”
One submitted jointly by Mississauga East-Cooksville and Sudbury says that “union dues paid by members should not be donated by the union to third-party organizations without the consent of the members.”
Many proposals dealt with increasing union transparency, similar to the controversial Bill C-377 that was blocked in the Senate in June. The bill aimed to make it mandatory for unions to file annual public financial statements and has now been sent back to the House.
None of the riding associations were available to comment on their proposals.
New Democrat labour critic Alexandre Boulerice says he has noticed an anti-labour shift in the Conservative caucus, and he believes they are contemplating “right-to-work” legislation.
“The Progressive Conservatives were not anti-union at all,” he said, “But now we can feel that they want to break the backbone of the labour movement in Canada."
Boulerice believes the Prime Minister’s office intends to whittle away at union rights. He points to Bill C-525, which was introduced in June and would make the union certification process more onerous for federal employees.
Peter Coleman, president of the National Citizens Coalition, believes the Conservatives are sensing a change in public thinking about the role of unions and are acting, through bills such as C-377, to curtail their power.
While some of the convention proposals are “just pie in the sky,” he said, they indicate that Conservatives are more willing at least to discuss anti-union moves, even if they are not likely to be adopted as party policy.
“They throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks and see what the moderate, temperate voices come up with,” he said.
“I do believe there’s a lot of work in the Conservative party at the federal level to get some of these things brought forward.”