07/03/2012 08:00 EDT | Updated 09/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Part 2: Give Workers the Chance to Say "No" to Old-Time Union Bosses

Imagine if the Canadian boxers or kayakers competing in the 2012 Olympics had to do it with one arm tied behind their backs. It wouldn't be long before outraged Ontarians demanded a rule change, to put everyone back on a level playing field.

So why should Ontarians have to live -- and work -- with labour laws, regulations and institutions that are decades out of date, limiting competition, workplace flexibility and job creation?

It's time to modernize our labour markets and rules, to give Ontario employees more choice and control over their own workplace needs and freedoms. Taking bold action on this front is all part of getting our economic fundamentals right, by encouraging the kind of flexible workforce Ontario businesses need to be competitive and create good jobs again.

In the Ontario PCs' new "Paths to Prosperity: Labour Flexibility" white paper, we say it's time to rethink the extraordinary powers government grants unions. While unions fight to protect existing jobs, they can't be allowed to prevent new jobs from being created. Ontario needs to focus on expanding its economy and creating jobs, not just on slowing job losses. That's not the road back to prosperity. It's the wrong path.

Over time, unions have contributed to developing Ontario's middle class and to improving safety in the workplace. These were important gains. Unions prospered in a world of large corporations, jobs-for-life and a relatively slow pace of change. But those days are gone. The world has changed. The protectionist instincts that shaped our worldview then have given rise to globalization now.

Today, workers of all ages want and take far more control over their careers, switching employers and even moving to new fields altogether. They need workplaces, pay and benefits that will make it easy for them to branch out and try new approaches and ideas. Old-fashioned workplaces where union contracts narrowly prescribe exactly how a job must be done and who will do it just aren't compatible with the 21st century-style competition we face from abroad. Neither are the grievances that usually meet efforts to adapt to customer or consumer demand, and that often result in operations grinding to a halt, resulting in lost market share.

Unfortunately, the big public sector unions don't seem to have noticed the rapid shift to a 21st century economy, which features more small and medium-sized employers, multiple careers for workers and constantly changing economic demands. They're more at home with workplace laws, rules and government agencies that date back in some cases to the 1940s.

Yet in American states with which Ontario must compete in the 21st century, far different rules apply. So far, 23 of them have adopted laws making closed union shops illegal, and which protect employees from being fired for not paying union dues.

We've studied their approach carefully to sift through for what we can adapt to our own realities. Same with the experience of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, which have all moved ahead on labour market reforms just like these. So while they may be new ideas for Canada, they're standard practices in most of the industrialized world where we do business. And for countries and markets we want to do business with -- by attracting jobs and investment here to Ontario.

The changes in the United States are critically important to our province. Why? Because our neighbour is on the verge of a manufacturing renaissance. The Boston Consulting Group projects that net labour costs for manufacturing in China and the U.S. will converge around 2015. This U.S. manufacturing renaissance is expected to take place primarily in states with voluntary unionism.

Over the last decade, more than five million Americans have moved from states where union financial support is mandatory to states where it is voluntary. Modern labour market rules create opportunity (not to mention fatter paycheques), and workers follow.

Bold changes that make union leaders accountable to their members are pro-market, pro-worker, economic reforms that take issue with the extraordinary ability of unions to levy what amounts to a tax. These changes can take a number of different forms. They can make forced union membership an unfair labour practice for unions and employers. They can also require that union dues be collected by union officials themselves -- not by the employer or the provincial government through automatic payroll deductions -- to drive more accountability.

Reforms can guarantee that all votes by secret ballot can be administered independently, for example by the Ontario Labour Relations Board or Elections Ontario. Not only should every employee have the right to a secret ballot vote to certify or not, but all strike votes and collective agreement ratification votes should be by supervised secret ballot as well.

Sometimes big challenges require big ideas. And big ideas mean big change. Ontario has bounced back before by thinking -- and acting -- with bold strokes. Ontario can again lead Canada in competitiveness and job creation by getting our economic fundamentals right. But a key step will be to open up economic opportunities for individual workers -- not old-time union bosses.