Part 2: “Right-to-Work” in Ontario – The Tory Plan and Union Strategies
By Andrew Stevens and Dave Bush
When Tim Hudak announced his reversal on RTW on February 21 he painted this backtracking as a simple shift in priorities for the Tories. They would now be focusing on tax cuts, the skills shortage and hydro prices – changing the Rand Formula, Hudak argued, wouldn’t solve the major issues of the day.
This specious justification for a clear about-face by Hudak masks the political problems created by the Tories RTW stance. After the 2011 election, when Hudak squandered an opportunity to come to power, he and his party swung further to the right, releasing a series of policy papers called the Paths to Prosperity.
Without any substantive ideas for how to kick-start Ontario’s ailing manufacturing sector, the Tories economic white paper focused on labour law reform, released in June of 2012, it proposed, among other things, ending mandatory union dues and dues checkoff. These proposals were designed to destroy unions.
Eliminating dues checkoff, for instance, means starving unions of stable funds as unions have become reliant upon employers collecting union dues. Unions have structured their daily activities and coordinated their internal resources in such a way that having to rapidly convert to collecting members dues would be disaster for most unions. If union dues were made voluntary, most unions would have to rapidly restructure themselves to ensure every workplace has systematic, ongoing recruitment and organizing. Most union workplaces do not have this capacity and existing stewards networks are largely incapable of meeting this task, although they would have to be involved in such an effort. On top of all that, union resources would have to be increasingly devoted to dues collection itself (keep in mind that many unions have only a partial or incomplete contact lists of members).
The paper argues for turning Ontario into a right to work province by arguing that “instituting worker choice reforms in Ontario would not only meet the challenge offered by American states, it would put the province in a leading competitive position in Canada.” The seven basic proposals in the document are designed to hamstring unions and curb the power of workers to organize. What’s peculiar about the policy paper, at least from a PC perspective, is that the party looks to provinces like Quebec, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador, as models of success. Of course, most of the jurisdictions cited in the report, except for Alberta, have the highest union density rates in the country! Like the Fraser Institute report, the PCs cherry pick information when it suits their interests.
The white paper positioned the Tories so far to the right that they rejected McGuinty’s plan to drastically curb all public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights in the fall of 2012, because it did not go far enough.
The Cracks in the Tory Front
However, during the Niagara by-election cracks began to surface in the Tory ranks over the issue. In January eleven potential Tory candidates expressed their concern, in an internal party memo, about RTW hurting the PC’s electoral chances. That same month, Hudak also fired the Windsor area Tory candidate, Dave Brister, for his public questioning of RTW. Criticisms of RTW were also raised in a party conference call of 300 Tory activists that took place on January 22. The dissension in the ranks reflected a deeper divide in the party over strategy. Last fall during the party convention John O’Toole, a Tory MPP, openly questioned the value of campaigning on RTW. He stated, “I think it might be the wrong issue. If anyone mentions the word ‘Wisconsin’ we’re screwed.” It was around this time that Hudak and the author of the PC’s policy on labour law reform, Randy Hillier, had a public falling out over the the party’s stance on Ellis Don.
The realities of campaigning in pro-union Niagara, meant that Hudak had to paint his support for RTW styled policies as just an idea, not a policy priority. But it was too late for the party, they were effectively browbeaten by the NDP as anti-union and anti-worker.
Immediately after the election loss Hudak lashed out against unions claiming that they had cost his party the election and announcing they had set up a website dedicated to exposing “big labour”. However, just days later he announced the PC’s reversal on RTW. The election loss in Niagara gave credence to those within the party that argued campaigning on the issue was a dead end. Facing a fractured party, and lukewarm reception from large employers over RTW, Hudak had little choice but to shift gears.
Does this mean the end of the RTW issue in Ontario? The short answer is no. Hudak and the Tories are still committed to enacting laws aimed at curbing union power, for instance, there seems to be no indication that they are backing away from forcing full financial disclosure on unions and “paycheck protection”. When O’Toole dissented about RTW at the party convention, his main objection was not about the effects or goals of RTW, rather how they would play in an election. He argued the party wasn’t “languaging” the policy correctly. As he stated, “a lot of the things we’re talking about could be dealt with by language. Here is what I suggest: ‘we strengthen workplace democracy.’” His argument was that a full frontal assault on the Rand Formula is not the way to go and Hudak now seems to be taking this tact.
Two of the latest states in the U.S. that instituted RTW styled laws, Wisconsin and Michigan, did so through a sneak attack. Neither the governors nor their parties’ campaigned on labour law reform, rather they simply argued, after they were elected, that RTW policies were needed to solve their states fiscal problems. If the Tories were elected it seems more plausible that they would first enact a series of more restrictive labour laws that didn’t directly confront the Rand Formula, but weakened labour, before moving on to RTW.
What should unions do?
RTW is still a distinct possibility in Ontario. The question is what is the labour movement going to do about it? The OFL is organizing all unions and all locals meetings across the province to fight the Hudak agenda, while Toronto and York Region Labour Council launched an internal organizing effort against right work with its affiliates. I think it is fair to say that many unions while paying lip service to fighting RTW are carrying on as if it is business as usual.
OPSEU, having been badly burned by Harris’ Tories, has produced a short film and an ad campaign against Hudak’s RTW campaign. The problem is that much of their rhetoric rests upon the freerider or freeloader argument. The idea is that Hudak’s government will end dues check-off by making union dues optional, but still forcing unions to represent non-dues paying workers in a unionized workplace. Their ad “No Free Ride” draws the parallel to refusing to pay for a taxi after it has already driven you home. The problem here is that this line divides workers from each other rather than uniting them against an anti-worker agenda. By demonizing some workers as freeloaders and equating unions to a service provider akin to a taxi service, unions run the risk of alienating the majority of workers who aren’t in unions or are poorly serviced by them.
RTW laws, and similar legal attacks on workers, have been temporarily stalled by courts in places such as Indiana, Alberta and Saskatchewan. However, if labour is going to effectively challenge the onslaught of anti-labour laws than trade union activists must use the fight against RTW as an instrument to rebuild the trade union movement from below. The resources provided by the TYRLC and the meetings called by the OFL can be used as mobilizing tools for activists to connect and organize with each other. If unions simply go to members and ask them to save their hides from Hudak, the question will be “where have you been?” Activists in all unions must see this as an opportunity to organize their fellow workers to push unions into being more of a fighting force. RTW should be framed as an attack on all workers not just unions. Activists should argue for shifting resources into organizing new workers and devoting more resources to internal organizers.
To defeat RTW is to organize to make unions less dependent upon the dues-checkoff model. Trade union activists need to build rank and file groups that can begin to transform their locals from a service based model to an engaged fighting force for all workers. As Sam Gindin noted if unions don’t transform themselves into a fighting force for the working class, “the current crisis of trade unionism will persist and the fight to retain the dues check, even if won, will only be a footnote in labour’s continuing decline.”
However, this is not a lost cause, unions don’t have to fully transform themselves first in order to push back against RTW. We should think of the RTW battle as the type of mobilizing tool that provides an opening for activists to make serious headway in building more effective and empowering unions.
Fighting RTW outside the union movement will be even harder. Simply trying to rebrand RTW as RTW for less, will never work. Unions must shift the focus of the RTW fight to talking about workplace rights and democracy – before the Tories effectively seize that terrain. They have to engage in more daring and creative organizing drives, more aggressively support campaigns like the 14 dollar an hour minimum wage and implement internal organizing models that seek to empower workers, not just service them. These changes can only happen if trade union militants can organize themselves. The battle of RTW has not gone away with Hudak’s announcement, it has just begun.