Taking It To The Street



By Susanna Kelley

Susanna KelleyThere's been a lot of talk recently that we've entered a new - and rocky - era of labour relations now that Stephen Harper's Conservatives have a majority.

Harper's government passed legislation recently to force locked out postal workers back on the job.

It was unprecedented in a number of ways.

The legislation imposed a wage settlement and one that was lower than Canada Post was offering.

It also imposed new rules forbidding arbitrators to find a compromise solution between the two sides. "Final offer arbitration" forces arbitrators to, instead, simply choose between the two sides' offers. There can be no middle ground.

Flying under the radar so far, though, is a similar set of policies being proposed for Ontario by Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives in their election platform.

"Changebook," as it's called, takes dead aim at the power of labour unions on a number of fronts.

First, there's the expected PC pledge to bring the wages of public sector workers "in line with private sector standards." The party promises "a pay and benefits package that is fair, but that recognizes the enormous financial hole that Dalton McGuinty's Liberals have dug."

The Tories are trying to address a compensation situation that's gotten out of control at a time when Ontario is struggling with a significant deficit, according to PC labour critic Randy Hillier.

Not everyone agrees.

They're doing this because private sector wages and benefits are lower, said a professor of labour history from the University of Toronto.

"In fact, they should be going in the opposite direction," said Laurel Sefton MacDowell in an interview. Many of the new jobs, especially those available for young people, have low pay, few benefits and no job security, she said.

Even more interesting from a political point of view is a little-reported pledge to outlaw the use of dues money for political or non-negotiating purposes by unions, unless each individual union member agrees. That takes in campaigns supporting certain policies and parties.

"Unions are fully engaged in the political process and using dues from their members to advocate in a partisan fashion, and often to the detriment of their own members," said Mr. Hillier.

He cited a recent $60, one-time fee increase in dues for political action purposes in this election year by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Union (OECTA).

OECTA says the fee was democratically voted on and passed at its annual general meeting by a two-thirds majority - a much higher democratic threshold than the 50% plus one usually seen as fair. Each member of the union had been sent copies of that and all other resolutions before the meeting, which many locals had discussed with their members.

But Mr. Hillier denied that process was democratic, charging the convention was a delegated one so not every member of the union voted on it. OECTA says the presidents of each local, who in turn were elected by the individual members, chose the delegates.

In fact, many union members already vote individually to have their dues money used for political purposes. For example with the United Steelworkers Humanity Fund, which began as a way to raise funds for foreign aid, the dues donations were bargained as part of collective agreements that were ratified by each local union member.

When asked, Mr. Hillier did not deny the main target of the "paycheck protection" plank is the Working Families Coalition (WFC) - of which OECTA is a member.

"The Working Families (Coalition) is probably the greatest example or illustration of abuse by union management of union members," said Mr. Hillier.

The WFC is a group of at least 13 major Ontario unions currently running province-wide election ads against the Tories on many media outlets, including on this website. The Tories contend they have spent billions in several elections on anti-PC ads. They believe the WFC is merely a front for the McGuinty Liberals, and have taken it to court several times. They have lost each time.

When asked if the PC's will outlaw business-financed political campaigns, such as past ones by the Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Small Businesses, unless each individual shareholder of member companies agreed, Mr. Hillier said no. He is not opposed to so-called third-person advertising per se, he said.

The "paycheck protection" plank is just part of a package of anti-union initiatives inspired by the Republican right in the United States and now being brought to Canada by both the federal and Ontario Conservatives, according to Prof. Sefton MacDowell.

"They're aiming for power and once they get into power they want to keep it. And the way you can keep it is to go after sources that have got some clout and are independent, and the unions are one of these," she said.

"It's fundamentally undemocratic. All of these things are really not about enhancing the political culture but ... limiting it," she says.

So in the end, what do all these measures to limit the power of Ontario's unions mean to the average person?

The Conservatives are simply trying to re-balance a management-union equation that's gotten out of whack, said Mr. Hillier.

They do much more than that, said Prof. Sefton McDowell.

"It's essentially lowering standards, (and) creat(ing) more unemployment," she said.

"Real paycheck protection is raising the minimum wage."

Posted date : July 11, 2011
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