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artist comic of us states toppling like dominos while ontario sits separate

Enjoying Your Weekend? Thank the Union

Vivian McCaffrey

Buffeted by adverse political winds, strong unions  still have impact.

ETFO members have spent the last year standing up for the right to engage in free collective bargaining. In the process, we experienced some  rude awakenings: a Liberal government that betrayed a decade-long relationship with education professionals and a growing bias against unions. The broader context of  this experience helps us to both better understand the anti-union sentiment and fight against it.

Economic context

On the economic front, the 2008 financial crisis on Wall Street caused reverberations around the globe. In Ontario, it resulted in heavy  manufacturing job losses and a steep decline in income tax revenue. The loss of these  middle-class  union  jobs  contributed to the widening income gap. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports that between 1980 and 2009 pre-tax incomes of the top 20% of  income earners in Canada grew by 38.4%, while the middle 20% fell by 0.3% and the bottom 20% fell by 11.4%. A recent Conference Board report gives Canada a “C” grade for ranking 12th among 17 OECD nations in income inequality. The concentration of wealth and political power is  driving the policy on tax cuts, expenditure cuts, and attacks on unions.

Tax Policy

Ontario fiscal policy is unbalanced. Tax cuts in place since the Harris government have reduced revenue by close to $16 billion annually, an amount higher than the current deficit. In confronting the deficit, the Liberal government did not look to tapping into unprecedented corporate profits or addressing relatively flat  taxation rates that benefit the highest  earners.  Instead,  it  commissioned banker Don Drummond to examine the expenditure side of Ontario’s finances. It was no surprise that the Drummond Report targeted cuts to public sector jobs, public sector benefits, and programs such as full-day kindergarten and class size. Nor was it a coincidence that the government released the report the same day it summoned the education unions to the  ill-fated Provincial Discussion Table. The report was crassly used to give the government the upper hand in establishing the psychology for the “negotiations”.

Declining Rates of Unionization

In the mid-1950s, before widespread unionization  in  the  public  sector,  unionization in both Canada and the United States  was about 34%. Today, in Canada, the unionization rate is down to 31.2% (17.9% in the private sector and 74.2% in the public sector). In the United States, the overall unionization rate is a meagre 11.3% (6.6% in the private sector and 35.9% in the public sector). Right-wing politicians and ideologues claim unions are barriers to economic development and are  being  made  obsolete  by  globalization and  technological  change.  This  argument ignores the high rates of unionization in social democratic nations with relatively strong economies such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. (These countries also have comparatively low income gaps.)

Attack on Unions

That fact that a minority of Ontarians belong to unions enabled the McGuinty government to target public sector salaries and  benefits without precipitating a broad public back- lash. Bill 115’s attack on education workers’ collective bargaining rights followed the lead of recent anti-union legislation at the federal level. In June 2011, the Harper government forced  locked-out  postal  workers  back  to work and imposed conditions on arbitrators. The result was a settlement that was lower than  the  employer’s  final  offer.  In  March 2012, the federal government imposed a settlement on Air Canada employees, removing their right to strike. The federal government cavalierly brushed aside union rights, arguing that the economy was too fragile.

This flagrant disregard for union rights has also taken root in a number of provinces. In March 2012, British Columbia imposed legislation that suspended teachers’ right to strike, imposed a wage freeze, and sent unresolved issues to a government-appointed mediator forced to  work within a narrow mandate. The bill reintroduced provisions of previous legislation – banning teachers from negotiating class size and class composition – that the BC Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional the year before. In October 2012, the BC Liberal Party passed motions that, if adopted, would prohibit unions from spending their funds for political purposes and require  them to publicly disclose their financial reports – standards not required for  corporations.  (Similar  federal  legislation – Bill C-377 – was passed last year in the House of Commons and is working its way through the Senate.) In 2008, the Saskatchewan government enacted an expanded definition of “essential services” to effectively deprive most public sector workers of the right to strike. Over the past decade, the Quebec government has decertified unions of workers employed by health and social service agencies and denied home care providers the right to unionize.

There is more at stake than the right to strike and a limitation on collective bargaining rights. Conservative politicians are looking south  of  the border where the attack on unions goes to the very heart of union survival. Twenty-four U.S. state governments have adopted “right to work” laws that allow union members to opt out of paying dues while  still  enjoying the  benefits of  union contracts. These laws are used to drive down wages and unionization rates. Right to work legislation has existed in the United States for decades but primarily in southern and south western states. This changed in December when  Michigan,  an   industrial,  northern state, became the 24th to join the list.

Supporters argue right to work policies contribute to economic growth, but the research suggests otherwise. Strong economies rely on a  strong, consuming middle class. High-tech and knowledge-based industries need to attract educated and skilled workers who prefer to live in communities with robust public services that only a strong tax base can support.

These  anti-union  polices  have  arrived on our own doorstep. In anticipation of the next  provincial  election,  the  Ontario  PC Party is  promising to introduce legislation that  would  allow  union  members to  opt out of paying union dues, require unions to collect dues directly, and limit unions in activities that go beyond collective bargaining. Private member’s bills sponsored by PC MPPs have also proposed  to limit unions’ ability to organize and to weaken the Ontario Labour Relations Board and the interest arbitration system.

Standing up for the role of unions

You’ve  probably  read  the  bumper  sticker: “Enjoying your weekend? Thank the union.” As a counterpoint to current right-wing policies, it’s important to remind the increasing number of non-union members of the historic contribution of unions. In addition to gaining benefits through collective bargaining that have also raised standards for non-unionized workers, Canadian unions can point proudly to  their  role  in  the  establishment of  pensions, national health care, minimum wages, employment  standards,  maternity  benefits, unemployment insurance, workplace safety standards,  workers’  compensation,  and  so on. These economic and social benefits didn’t come easily; they were hard-fought gains.

Our fight against Bill 115, the Putting Students First Act 2012, should be seen as part of the ongoing struggle to protect and enhance all workers’ rights. In the short term, the strength of ETFO’s response to Bill 115 led the government to pull back from imposing similar legislation on other public sector workers. It  forced every Liberal leadership contender to address how he or she would resolve the  impasse  with  the  teachers. We still have some way to go to redress the issues that Bill 115 confronted us with, but we have achieved an enormous amount  by demonstrating that ETFO members will mobilize behind their leadership to defend fundamental rights that go beyond their own interests. In the longer term, the significance of the Bill 115 fight is that it showed that unions have an important role to play in challenging government policies that threaten our economic and social welfare and in confronting tactics that undermine democratic principles. Many in the media and the general public came to understand that this was what our fight was about. This awareness should weaken the appeal of the Ontario PC Party anti-union plaform. If indeed voters reject these policies, the fight against Bill 115 will represent an important chapter in labour history.