2014: The Canadian labour movement in review

Postal workers protest against the cuts to Canada Post
Postal workers protest against the cuts to Canada Post

By David Bush

This past year has seen governments continue and extend their unprecedented assault on fundamental trade union and worker rights, while employers demand even more concessions at the bargaining table.

At the federal level the Conservatives passed their omnibus Bill C-4, which stripped away basic health and safety regulations for workers. The legislation also effectively took away the right to strike from many federal public sector workers through a broadened “essential service” classification.

Tory backbenchers also introduced C-377 and C-525 as private members bills. The former, dubbed a union transparency act, is an attempt to pry open the books – and political strategies – of unions to public scrutiny. Designed by anti-union associations like LabourWatch and Merit Contractors, the proponents of C-377 have constructed a narrative of labour organizations as guilty of concealing financial and other information from their members.

In reality, C-377 allows the right to spin union expenses in order to whip up anti-union sentiment amongst the broader public. In fact, labour’s contribution to the defeat of Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives in the last Ontario election was cited as a reason why Canada needs greater union transparency. Much like its counterpart legislation south of the border, on which C-377 is modeled, the legislation will function as a weapon for employers and right-wing think tanks to better assess organized labour in order to defeat it.

Bill C-525, the other anti-union private member’s bill, attacks card-check certification in the federal sector and makes it more difficult overall for federal sector workers to form a union. Both C-525 and C-377 were thought to be dead on arrival earlier this year, but the zombie bills have returned. In a major blow for the union movement, Bill C-525 was passed Dec. 16, 2014, while Bill C-377 has been brought back to the Senate after its initial rejection.

photo from CTV Atlantic
Healthcare workers in Nova Scotia protest the Liberal’s anti-union legislation.

The provincial picture

Provincial governments right across the country have passed legislation that takes aim at the collective rights of workers. In Nova Scotia, the newly elected Liberals passed three sweeping anti-union laws: bills 30, 37 and 1. Bill 30 ordered striking homecare workers back to work. Bill 37 effectively takes away the right to strike for nearly 40,000 workers in the healthcare and community services – over half of the province’s unionized workforce.

Bill 1 is set to take Nova Scotia’s union movement back a hundred years by allowing the government – not the workers – to choose which unions can represent which workers at the bargaining table in the healthcare sector. The fifty existing bargaining units in the healthcare sector will be merged into four, with only one union for each unit. The government has refused to allow bargaining associations where workers would remain in their existing unions, but those unions would bargain together as a unit to achieve a collective agreement within the government mandated bargaining unit.

The situation in Nova Scotia is not unique. The labour movement in Saskatchewan faces a similar situation with Bill 85, which rewrote much of that province’s labour laws, weakening collective bargaining rights. In Alberta, the government passed two bills, 45 and 46, which attack the rights of public sector workers.

Bill 45 takes away the right to strike from public sector workers and mandates harsh fines for unions that even talk publicly about a walkout, while Bill 46 imposes a four-year contract on 22,000 public sector workers that freezes wages. In Newfoundland, the government passed Bill 22, which will make it much harder for workers to organize unions in their workplace.

The legislative attack in Quebec is seeking to impose austerity upon unionized workers. The recently passed Bill 3 attacks Quebec’s municipal public sector workers’ pensions, while proposed Bill 10 attacks the healthcare sector and could dramatically affect the working conditions of healthcare workers. Bill 8, passed into law in the fall, takes away the right for agricultural workers on small farms to unionize and collectively bargain, targeting some of Quebec’s most precarious workers.

February rally in Toronto for a 14 dollar minimum wage
February rally in Toronto for a 14 dollar minimum wage

Austerity and the labour fightback

The attack on workers’ rights in the public sector has gone hand-in-glove with a harsh austerity agenda for workers all across the country. One of the major battlegrounds facing labour, both in the public and private sector, is the aggressive attack on pensions. In Quebec, Bill 3 will rollback pensions for public sector workers by replacing defined benefit pension plans with the much risker defined contribution plans. In Regina, the City is looking to do the same to its municipal workers after the pension plan faced insolvency and dissolution at the hands of the provincial Superintendent of pensions.

In St. John’s, municipal workers accepted a two-tier pension plan – a very dangerous and nearly unheard of precedent among municipal workers. The municipality of Happy Valley-Goose Bay is now demanding a two-tier pension of its municipal workers.

In the private sector, a number of major strikes and lockouts occurred at least in part to protect pension plans, especially for new hires: the Bombardier strike in Thunder Bay, the Cascade aerospace strike in British Columbia, the Crown Holdings strike in Toronto, and the ArcelorMittal lockout in Quebec.

The fight over pensions and the right to retire with dignity is certainly an issue that is bound to heat up as governments and employers continue to pursue austerity policies.

But the pension issue is just one piece of the austerity agenda. In British Columbia the government and teachers fought over the government’s plan to save a buck on the backs of students and teachers’ working conditions. The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) wanted smaller class sizes, but Christy Clark’s Liberals preferred to upend the whole education system rather than give in on the issue.

Montreal demonstration against the Quebec Liberal's austerity policies. Photo courtesy of CSN's Facebook page.
Montreal demonstration against the Quebec Liberal’s austerity policies. Photo courtesy of CSN’s Facebook page.

Now Quebec’s teachers are facing government proposals including an increase in class sizes, the near elimination of support for special needs students, and longer work hours with no pay increases.

Right across the country major transit lockouts have occurred at the municipal level as local governments are looking to balance their books on the backs of workers and the public who use these services. Shortly after a transit lockout in Guelph, transit workers in Saskatoon were locked out in what the province’s labour board eventually ruled an illegal lockout by the city.

Other major battles for the labour movement that saw large-scale mobilizations include the fight against the changes to EI, the opposition to cuts to public services like veterans affairs and Canada Post, and the fight for an increased minimum wage.

It was these coast-to-coast mobilizations that show the real potential of labour to build a larger movement to beat back austerity.

Justice for temporary foreign workers

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) became the subject of much controversy in the mainstream press as a string of scandals came to light early in 2014. The Conservative government changed some of the rules governing the program to stem the public outcry.

The initial mainstream media response to the TFWP scandal focused on how Canadian born workers were being replaced by TFWs. Due to the tireless efforts of organizations working on migrant justice issues across the country and union activists in the labour movement outside of the building trades, many organizations and unions adopted the position that anyone who is brought here to work deserves to stay.

How the labour movement organizes in solidarity around migrant justice issues going forward will determine whether it can effectively combat the divide and conquer strategy used by employers and the government.

Info picket at IKEA Etobicoke in support of locked out IKEA workers in Richmond B.C.
Info picket at IKEA Etobicoke in support of locked out IKEA workers in Richmond B.C.

The politics inside labour 

The election of the a new CLC president, the first time a sitting president of the house of labour has been defeated, both opened the door to push for more militant rhetoric and exacerbated already existing tensions in our movement.

Hassan Yussuff was elected on the promise of more boots-on-the-ground action, which was positive. This was the direct product of Hassan Husseini’s Take Back the CLC campaign which made campaign mobilization a central theme at the CLC conference in May. However, the promise of reform from above in the Canadian labour movement is not going to provide the kind of change that the labour movement desperately need. The continuation of the misguided CLC Fairness Works advertising campaign shows that a change of leadership doesn’t always equate to a change in strategy. Yet, the possibility of the CLC again engaging in mobilizing campaigns, such as a renewed effort to double the CPP, is a positive development that should be embraced

There is no doubt that the labour movement is also divided over longstanding issues such as how unions should orient towards the NDP and elections – just look at the recent split at the Ontario Federation of Labour. Often these fights within labour can take on the guise of other issues such as the handling of finances or personality clashes. But don’t fooled, there are deep political divisions in labour – should labour focus on supporting the NDP, strategic voting, or building wider community mobilization? In many ways labour leaders are hesitant about committing to wider mobilization and deeper unity in the labour movement precisely because it threatens their control. A divided house of labour means that those leading the affiliates can more easily chart their own path.

Teachers in Golden B.C. striking for better class size and composition.
Teachers in Golden B.C. striking for better class size and composition.

2015 and beyond 

In 2015 the labour movement will be drawn ever deeper into the electoral arena, which will sharpen the divisions within labour. However, rank-and-file trade unionists are less likely to buy into this turf war.

Campaigns to support striking Crown Holdings workers in Ontario, to Save Canada Post, and the large multi-union push against the austerity policies in Quebec showcase what is possible when unions focus on mobilization that reaches the broader public.

If the union movement is to avoid the dead ends of strategic voting or blind loyalty to the NDP, it must begin by mobilizing its members around issues such as protected and extended public services, the creation of an appropriately funded national childcare program, a higher minimum wage, and large infrastructure spending on public transportation. Campaigns such as these must aim to win broad public support, not just influence policy makers at various levels of government.

These campaigns can engage union members, get activists from various labour organizations working together and build meaningful solidarity with those outside the union movement.

If the trade union movement wants to effectively combat austerity and climate change it will need ideas to put on the table, such as a publicly owned green development initiative and postal banking. But absent an active and fighting rank-and-file in the trade union movement such big ideas will remain nothing more than a dream. The fight against austerity in 2015 will continue, but whether that fight is effective, or more than just a vote, depends on our ability to organize to win public support for those ideas on the ground.

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6 thoughts on “2014: The Canadian labour movement in review

  1. Why is there no mention of the lockout at IKEA Richmond? You mention the BCTF but only include a picture of our dispute from another province. We stood outside for 527 days, a length that far exceeded the other disputes that are in your article yet you couldn’t even mention that we existed. Thanks for nothing.

  2. It is astonishing that no one in the Labour Movement attacks austerity on mathematical grounds. Fact is, austerity can never solve the national debt problem, because the debt is mostly compound interest, which accumulates much faster than Harper can ever cut services to the public. In short, austerity makes no mathematical sense.
    Appealing to the social conscience of elites is a waste of time. But, showing mathematically that austerity cannot possibly work, awakes voters to alternative solutions to the national debt problem.

    Across Canada governments at all levels have debts which mostly consist of compound interest, and must be repaid before the fast (logarithmic) growth of compounded interest makes it impossible to ever repay these debts.
    To produce surpluses to repay these debts, governments have chosen to cut services to the public – an approach which mathematically can never solve the debt problem.
    If the federal government cuts services to the public by $10 billion in 2015 (an enormous “achievement” ) and pays that surplus against the $600 billion federal debt, that would merely reduce the debt to $590 billion, and interest would keep compounding rapidly. Clearly, if austerity is to work, additional cuts to public services are needed. In fact if cuts of $10 billion could be made yearly for 60 consecutive years that would eliminate the $600 billion debt – except for interest compounding during the 60 year period. And, well before the 60th year, all social services would cease and the public would die off from illness, starvation, fire or violence. Mathematically, by using austerity we can eliminate the federal debt only by eliminating the population.
    Similarly, if Quebec cuts services to the public by $5 billion in 2015 (an enormous “achievement”) and pays that surplus against its $180 billion debt, that process would have to be repeated for 36 consecutive years to pay off the debt – except for interest compounding during the 36 year period. And, it is inconceivable that $180 billion could be cut from services to the public without destroying the population of Quebec.
    The moral justification for austerity is that it is payback for reckless spending the public demanded from governments over the years. This accusation is demonstrably false. For example, according to Auditor General Desautels the federal debt in 1993 was due 91% to compound interest, and merely 9% to government expenditures on projects and services. The real villain here is not money showered on the public, but gigantic interest charges arising since 1974, when Canada switched from borrowing from the Bank of Canada at almost no interest, to borrowing from the private sector at steep market rates (as high as 15% to 20% in the early 1980s.)
    Brainy people who run our economy must be aware of the above maths, but deride or silence any discussion of producing surpluses, not through austerity, but by taxing speculative financial transactions (ie, the once-famous Tobin Tax), or by using the public owned Bank of Canada exactly as was done with great success from 1939 to 1974.
    These alternate ways of producing surpluses must be brought to the attention of the general public before it is reduced to levels of poverty not seen since Engels described neo-liberal nineteen century Britain.

  3. This is a view made known by J. M. Keynes more than 80 years ago and raised regularly by Keynesian economists since. The trouble is that, on the one hand, most “progressives” hate economics, and math, or, in he case of the “militant” left, Keynes’ social democratic solutions. On the other hand, in the modern era, , “austerity” is and always has been driven by a desire, not to cut the deficit but to cut social spending and shrink the size of government. It is driven by (James) Buchanan and (Friedrich) Hayek’s (both Nobel Laureates’) “libertarian” views – that a large government sector “crowds out” private investment, which is utter nonsense, but so is the view that God created the heaven and the earth in six days. These are articles of faith and mathematics usually does little to change people’s minds about articles of faith.

    Combined with the idea that many on the left don’t believe voting makes a difference and actually counsel people not to vote, means that conservatives can win the day simply by showing up at the voting booth in large numbers, which they always have done and always will do, and then they implement their articles of faith as public policy and also thereby go about attacking their political enemies, from a position of strength, while in power.

    The sooner people on the left realize this, the sooner we can change public policy, even while not immediately changing people’s minds in areas where unconscious wishes and emotions are at play.

    Besides which, the labour movement is notoriously led-footed when it comes to such matters. They proudly proclaim to be representing the “working class” in some sort of make-believe revolutionary struggle and advocate nothing but dogmatic resistance for its own sake – strikes and loud slogan-ridden protests – regardless of the issues on the table or what the public may wish to hear or see.

    Politicians can always count on the stupidity of the labour movement to implement its horrific, self-serving policies. Do you think that there is any chance that labour movement bureaucrats, at any level, will stop to actually listen to people who have economic, mathematical, psychological or political skills? They will do what they have always done, until this moment: recommend that people go on strike for higher wages and the settle for less than inflation, after not being able to pay their mortgages for several months.

    What they will not do is:
    A) take the employer to court for failing to bargain in good faith;
    B) develop an alternative to the current system of collective “bargaining” and then;
    C) find an intelligent way to present this to the public for their appreciation;
    D) e.g.: rely upon third party services, such as mediation and even pre-mediation and lastly arbitration, or
    E) Even more cleverly, at least advocate these steps as an alternative to the arcane failed tactics of strike action and public protests where failure is an evident outcome

    Of course, labour movement officials will continue to ignore the ideas of good economists, who are fully aware that the math does not make sense and many of whom are among their own rank and file. Has the author actually talked to anyone in the labour movement? (Silly question I know.)

    In short, it has more to do with Machiavelli than math, on both sides. Politicians know how to control and rouse the crowds – far better than do labour “leaders” – and labour leaders have the political instincts of the proverbial deaf, dumb and blind monkeys. Greater militancy in the area of failed policies hardly ever works. Try something new (ahem), like: advocating for the enforcement of good faith bargaining and compulsory (neutral) third party assistance, rather than protest and strike action. And hire some intelligent lawyers. And then, make sure you vote.

  4. In a capitalist democracy capital is always in office (power) so that which ever political party forms the government it is subject to the dictates of capital.
    This is what happened in Ontario from 1990 to 1995.
    Read Gerry Caplan’s Globe & Mail online article, The hidden history of Bob Rae’s government in Ontario.

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