11/04/2011 09:07 EDT | Updated 01/04/2012 05:12 EST

Attacks on Unions Hurting All Canadians

Whether it's labour rights, the long gun registry, the Canadian Wheat Board, approaches to combating crime or illegal drug use -- the list can go on and on and on -- the message from the Harper Conservatives is clear: if you don't agree with us, we will come after you.


It takes a baffling level of arrogance to claim to be acting in the best interests of Canadian workers while relentlessly dismissing, belittling, and attacking unionized workers across Canada.

Arrogance, however, is a trait far from rare among Harper Conservatives, who are spending an inordinate amount of time and energy in their barely-worn majority mandate undermining the labour movement, wheat farmers, women's groups, and others.

The most recent targets are over 6,800 flight attendants working for Air Canada. Under the guise of hardly plausible threats to the Canadian economy and the health and safety of air travellers, the Harper Conservative government moved swiftly to undermine the rights of these workers.

The attack on their rights to free collective bargaining and to strike, however, is symptomatic of a larger trait of this federal government. This labour dispute marked another opportunity for the Harper Conservatives to take another swipe at their most feared threat: any voice that opposes their ideological agenda.

While unions are the most recent target, they are far from the first this government has taken aim, nor I doubt the last.

Whether it's labour rights, the long gun registry, the Canadian Wheat Board, approaches to combating crime or illegal drug use -- the list can go on and on and on -- the message from the Harper Conservatives is clear: if you don't agree with us, we will come after you.

On the Insite case, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a unanimous decision, parted ways with the Harper government calling their approach to the safe drug site "arbitrary" and "disproportionate." This isn't the only policy area these words could apply to.

The Harper Conservatives are treating their majority government as a free reign to rule and dictate however they please. Every Canadian should be alarmed at the casual way this government brushes aside the concerns and interests of anyone who doesn't fit into their ideology.

This was clearly shown with the Harper Conservatives choosing to side with Air Canada in not one, but two labour disputes. For the federal government to so blatantly favour a private corporation in labour negotiations once and for all dispels any notion they are concerned with the well-being of wage earners, or any Canadian outside the Bay Street boardrooms.

It is also shown in their immovable defense of corporate tax cuts, their cavalier dismissal of a financial transaction tax, a continued neglect on their part to address the retirement income insecurity crisis, and an insistence on concluding international trade pacts without public discourse or debate.

Of course, the Harper Conservatives claim when corporations do well, jobs are created, the economy grows, and all Canadians will end up better off. There is, however, no evidence to back up this neo-liberal fantasy.

Over the last few decades, the salaries of CEOs have been driven higher and higher, while the wages of their workers grow at an absurdly slower rate. Defined benefit pensions have become increasingly scarce. When once we strived to work hard, save, and build a better life for our families, corporations want us to believe we are lucky to have a job at all -- but don't let that stop you from raking up thousands and thousands in consumer debt.

The myth can't go on forever, and even the most fervent Conservative supporter is bound to ask -- we keep giving corporations every advantage, why isn't it getting any better for me and my family?

Lacking any rational answer, at least one that doesn't betray Bay Street, Harper Conservatives have a long list of ideological scapegoats at the ready.

Circumstance put postal workers and Air Canada employees at the head of the queue, but every other union member in Canada knows they are next. Someone has to take the fall for failing trade policies, corporate irresponsibility, and massive deficits caused by regressive tax schemes.

So ploy after ploy is being used to undermine Canadian labour. Union members, especially public-sector union members, are being offered up as the economic boogiemen, with tired stereotypes being trotted out to portray some Canadian workers as privileged just because they have some small measure of security.

These types of tactics are not fitting of our society. They speak to a reliance on divisive political games that play to the worst fears of Canadians to gain and maintain power. While unions are the present target, union members are far from the only one being harmed by this type of politics. It's lead to a tragic erosion in many's faith in our democratic process, and the mass disenfranchisement of far too many Canadian citizens.

Some are speaking out and trying to find a different way. We have seen and heard it from many participating in the peaceful Occupy movement gatherings. We heard it from 4.5 million voters who helped foster an unprecedented electoral breakthrough for federal New Democrats.

We have heard it this week in Vancouver at the Canadian Union of Public Employees' 25th national convention. The message is loud and clear, and will be heard all the way to Ottawa. There is a better way for Canada, but it will not be found through threats, divisive politics or the rhetoric of fear.

It will come from a sincere desire to put the needs of Canadian workers first, where we build a society where success is not measured in how many Canadians can be dragged down, but on how many can rise up to new heights of security and prosperity for them and their families.

Paul Moist is national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canada's largest union with over 615,000 members.