04/15/2016 04:21 EDT | Updated 04/16/2017 05:12 EDT

Labour Law Retreat Shows The Value Of Unions To All Of Society

Alan Sirulnikoff via Getty Images
Legislative Assembly Building, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada

A big victory in New Brunswick last week shows how important it is to all of society that working people have a strong voice to speak up to people in power.

Last month, the New Brunswick government introduced Bill 24, an omnibus bill that, among other things, changed the rules around collective bargaining and arbitration for both public and private sector employers and workers.

And, while the changes were being brought in to deal specifically with public sector collective bargaining and to reduce wage settlements for those workers, even the province's own Labour Minister Francine Landry when questioned, did not seem to know why the law would also apply to the private sector.

That's bad enough. But what's even more troubling is that the government of Premier Brian Gallant did not initially appreciate just how destructive and divisive the new legislation would be in the province.

Unions such as Unifor and our members saw right away that the bill would result in unnecessary labour conflict across the economy as it gutted free and fair collective bargaining, put a downward pressure on the wages of all New Brunswickers and would make it very difficult to achieve negotiated contracts.

Employers would have had little incentive to come to the bargaining table to negotiate openly or freely toward a collective agreement, preferring an arbitration system slanted in their favour under this legislation.

The bill would effectively suppress the wages of all workers in the province and limit their rights to free association.

Unifor and others from across the New Brunswick labour movement packed the province's Legislature to voice our concerns with Bill 24. And on April 5, Unifor Atlantic Regional Director Lana Payne and I met with both the premier and the labour minister to outline what was wrong with Bill 24.

Two days later, the parts of the proposed labour law changes in the omnibus bill were withdrawn and private sector collective bargaining rules would remain as they were. The minister announced a joint committee of all stakeholders to review the rules for public sector collective bargaining.

We will be an active part of that process.

This victory came as a result of a united labour movement that stood together in solidarity against a poorly thought out piece of legislation that would have done a lot of harm. In doing so, the labour movement stood up for the good wages for all New Brunswickers, not just those who happen to be represented by a union.

Legal opinions obtained by Unifor showed that not only would the proposed changes damage labour relations in the province, they would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for all New Brunswickers. The bill would effectively suppress the wages of all workers in the province and limit their rights to free association.

While every employer wants to save money where it can, it is a fool's game for a government to try bringing in labour laws that so blatantly tilt the balance in employers' favour.

When you cut or suppress wages, you cut consumer spending, and that ultimately hurts businesses and the economy.

Fighting laws like Bill 24 just makes good economic sense. Wages aren't just a cost. They are the consumer spending that truly drives a modern economy. Every dollar a worker earns is put back into the economy in the form of spending on the goods and services that businesses provide, further driving the economy.

That means wage suppression is economic suppression, and a fool-hardy policy for any government to pursue. It just makes no sense. Not for the economy, not for business and not for workers

And, while the removal of sections of Bill 24 is a great victory for working people in New Brunswick, much work remains as the province reviews collective bargaining rules in the public sector.

We will be front and centre as that review takes place, as we have been from the beginning.

Beyond that, we must fight back against the attitude that driving down wages for working people and tilting the system in favour of big employers is a good thing.

Such policies ultimately hurt the economy and all workers, and it is vital that the labour movement continue to show the solidarity is has throughout this struggle if we are to make real progress.

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