Tough times for organized labour

It's not a good time to be organized labour, or most types of labour, in Canada.

And I'd define "time" as the period when Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada. It began as a minor concern back in 1996 and seems likely to continue at least until the Tories' year-old majority in Parliament faces an election in or around 2015.

A booming economy in the West has unemployment at 7.3 per cent nationally, so it's not the dark days of labour strife in the 1970s and early '80s. Regardless, unions are battling the Harper government over their right to strike while the Conservatives legislate changes that raise the retirement age and restrict employment insurance benefits.

Ottawa also just repealed - deep within the omnibus, and/or ominous, 452-page 2012 budget - a relatively obscure but significant piece of legislation called the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act. Depending on your personal politics, it's either music to your ears or a funeral dirge.

"Connect the dots," urges Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"This is not just a war on unions. It's an attack on all working people in Canada to fundamentally change the labour market in ways that benefit employers," McGowan said.

Others, like Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty, applaud the fact Ottawa is moving to address the persistent labour shortages in the western provinces and he urges more action to resolve "the No. 1 issue" for business in the country.

A number of events have pushed labour issues to the forefront of the policy agenda.

On Wednesday, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt suggested she could table back-to-work legislation as early as Monday when Parliament resumes to bring an end to a strike by 4,800 workers at Calgarybased Canadian Pacific Railway that began Wednesday.

On Thursday, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley announced Employment Insurance benefits would be scaled back and the provisions to qualify for payments under the program that is funded by employers and workers would be stricter.

A story this week by The Canadian Press on the unexplained repeal of the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act simply asked: "Is the Harper government fundamentally anti-labour?"

Most observers would describe Harper's Tories as ideologically strongly pro-business, highly opposed to unions and collective bargaining, and steadfast about reducing Ottawa's $23.5-billion budget deficit. In that respect their actions hardly come as a surprise.

CP wouldn't be the first time Harper used back-to-work legislation. In the year since winning his first majority in Parliament last May, his government used it three times - once with Canada Post and twice with Air Canada.

To be fair, the Tories aren't the only Canadian government to override collectively bargained rights of workers.

In 1997, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien ended a two-week postal strike by imposing a settlement and current Liberal Leader Bob Rae's "social contract" with Ontario's public sector unions when he was NDP premier in the early 1990s arbitrarily rewrote contracts to address budget woes.

The federal NDP has allowed back-to-work legislation to pass.

For the first five years of Confederation, union activity was a criminal act in Canada. It was 1872, near the end of the Industrial Revolution, when Parliament passed the Trade Unions Act.

Labour leaders would contend it's not simply a coincidence growth of the union movement in the 20th century corresponded with improvements in public health care, public education and the overall working conditions for employees in Canada.

The percentage of working Canadians represented by unions peaked in the 1980s at 38 per cent. It's now about 30 per cent.

This week it was revealed two of Canada's biggest unions were looking at a possible merger. The Canadian Auto Workers and the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers also acknowledged they're looking to the unemployed and the retired as potential new members.

Critics, mostly union leaders and academics, contend Harper's government is abusing labour laws.

One issue in the CP strike centres on a provision Canadian Labour Code that allows Ottawa to force employees to continue to provide services "to prevent an immediate and danger to the safety or health of the public."

Raitt has said she's considering changing the code so "the economy" is deemed essential service for the country.

She's warned the CP strike could cost $540 million in economic activity per week in Canada's $1.8-trillion annual economy.

"The Canadian government will step in on the basis of the national economy and the greater public interest at some point." Raitt said.

While the unions fight on, it's uncertain how much clout organized labour carries these days.

The movement isn't what it once was and the report on the CAWCEP merger acknowledged a goal is to change a perception unions aren't relevant in today's society.

Given their challenges, and common foe in Ottawa, teaming up likely makes sense.

Harper famously said in 1997 "Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term," so you can pretty much see how public policy in Ottawa is going over the rest of his mandate.

Perhaps the best hope for labour leaders might just be that for all of Harper's neo-conservative zeal, the politician in him knows it's smart to get the heavy lifting done in year one of the mandate and hope that voters forget, or at least accept, it.

It means 2012 is shaping up to be a historic year in labour relations in Canada, historically bad.

Calgary Herald, Sat May 26 2012
Byline: Stephen Ewart

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