Union Strength is up to You

Labour Day warning: If you want your union and your rights in the workplace, you’d better be prepared to fight to keep them
By David J. Climenhaga | September 5, 2011
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This Labour Day in Canada, unions and the fundamental right of working people to be represented by them face an existential threat. Elected union leaders seem for the most part not to be prepared for this reality.

As in southern Europe and the United States, the people who have in the past decade brought us bank failures, recession and declining economies are massing their not inconsiderable forces to further weaken the union movement in Canada.

If you think blatant and vicious attacks on the rights of working people and the social programs that support them are just a phenomenon that happens south of the Medicine Line, you’ve been smoking the peels of U.S.-grown bananas!

The ultimate goal of these people is to destroy the union movement and the ability of working people to bargain collectively, hence to act in their collective interest.

These anti-union forces particularly despise public service unions for the simple reason that the union movement has remained stronger in the public sector, in Canada and throughout the world. They recognize that the benefits and protections won by public sector unions provide a dangerous example to working people employed by private companies. How can they persuade us that “there is no alternative” when public sector unions prove every day there is?

As Catherine Swift, president of the so-called Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which consistently works against the healthy and flourishing middle-class communities that make independent businesses prosper, bluntly stated the position of these well-heeled and well-connected Canadians: “What would be ideal is getting rid of public-sector unions entirely.”

Some of the things their current agenda calls for include:

– “Right-to-work” laws — Cotton-Belt-style legislation that essentially makes it illegal for unions to organize or operate. Mark my words, though, the supporters of these laws will soon come up with a new misleading euphemism to replace this long-discredited name. “Employee Freedom of Choice” laws, perhaps.

– A ban on political contributions by unions — without a corresponding ban on political contributions by corporations. Remember, according to this worldview, what’s an undemocratic misuse of union members’ dues is “freedom” for corporate shareholders.

– The elevation through legislation to quasi-official status of regional house unions that collaborate with employers and governments against the interests of the working people they purport to represent. Why deal with unco-operative trade unionists when you can make like Juan Peron and cultivate your own sympathetic employer-union sweethearts?

– Myriad regulatory restrictions designed to make it hard to certify — and easy to decertify — real unions. For example, requiring “democratic” certification votes 100 per cent of the time, even if 100 per cent of the employees in a workplace have already voluntarily signed a union card. This strings out the unionization process and provides employers with loads of opportunities to break the law to threaten workers during that endless interregnum.

– A corresponding reduction in any penalties that can be levied against employers to meaningless slaps on the wrist, mere “costs of doing business” like photo-radar speeding tickets to taxi drivers. This situation already exists here in Alberta and makes a mockery of whatever laws may technically be on the books.

– The extension of “essential services” regulations to the private sector in ways that will enable any for-profit company to legally require their own union workers to act as scabs in the event of a strike.

– The need for “harmonization” of labour laws to maintain “competitiveness” among provinces. Needless to say, this cry will be silenced faster than you can shout “Adrian Dix” if the British Columbia NDP manages not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and is elected in that province.

How do we know these things are on the private corporate agenda? Because they are all on the public agenda here in Western Canada, if they are not already on the law books in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan.

When the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees went to the government in 2007 with thousands of citizens’ signatures on a petition calling for such reasonable and simple legislative changes as automatic certification when more than half the employees in a workplace had signed a union card or binding first-contract arbitration when a newly unionized employer broke the law and refused to bargain in good faith, they couldn’t get in the door of the labour minister’s office.

When a cabal of anti-union contractors and other major Conservative Party donors went to the same minister this year looking for many of the things on the list above, he practically tripped over himself in his hurry to set up a labour law “review” to suit these generous contributors. Needless to say, there is no labour representation on this committee.

When a heavily coded question about “competitiveness” and the Alberta Labour Code was asked last Thursday at an Alberta Conservative leadership all-candidates’ forum, all six of the candidates spoke in favour of the kinds of measures described here, some of the most “liberal” among them the most vociferously.

Remember, this was a public forum and many people in attendance were not Conservatives, so they didn’t really have the excuse they had to say these things to mollify radical party insiders. One suspects that, due to the coded phrases used, few in the audience really knew what was being proposed or discussed.

Nor is there much worry about the likely unconstitutionality of such proposals in these anti-union circles. If at first you don’t succeed, they no doubt reason, there’s always the Notwithstanding Clause.

If such efforts succeed here in Alberta, it won’t be long before they’re coming to your part of Canada under the deceptive guise of harmonization and competitiveness.

So the labour movement’s leaders need to get off their duffs and do something more about this than publishing aggrieved press releases.

A good place to start might be putting some money into the campaigns of pro-labour politicians who have already proved their worth by getting elected.

It’s also time for labour to recognize the reality of the corporate media and provide some serious seed money to developing regional on-line sources of news and progressive commentary, as has occurred in British Columbia through the establishment of The Tyee, which embarrasses the mainstream media virtually every day.

And it’s also time to put some of our money into sophisticated marketing of the value of collective bargaining to our prosperity and freedom.

These ideas are just a start. But none of them will happen if we don’t wise up to the fact that the challenges we face in Canada are just as real and pressing as those of our counterparts in Wisconsin, Greece or Spain, or that the forces determined to destroy our rights are just as malignant and self-interested.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.