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Canada’s Conservative Party Gaining Ground in the Fight to Americanize Labor Conditions (Yes, That’s a Bad Thing)

In Canada, unions are under attack from the conservative party and the Rand Formula is the prime target. The battle to limit the ability of organized labor to properly function is being won by the Right.

The historic Rand Formula has been in place since 1946 and mandates the payment of union dues. The cornerstone of Canadian labor negotiations, it was created as a way of striking a balance between the need for stable labor relations and individual objection to union membership. It is effectively legislation that acts in the exact opposite manner as America’s “Right-to-Work” laws.

The anti-Rand stance is not new to the Canadian Conservative party, rather it is a tenet of Prime Minister Harper’s labor policy. His party has used back-to-work legislation to end labor disputes five times in less than two years. Bill C-377, which has made continued progress in the House of Commons, places severe financial obligations on unions and impedes their privacy.

The Ontario Federation of Labour, which represents 54 unions and one million workers, has released its report, Working4Less, a detailed account of the legislative dismantling of Canadian labor unions. The Rand Formula, which among other things prevents the “freeloading” that comes with American “Right-to-Work” laws, is now under direct attack from multiple political parties in Canada. According to the OFL’s report:

Canada’s social consensus in support of the Rand Formula came under attack in 2012 from several political parties, including the Saskatchewan Party, Alberta’s Wild Rose Party and Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives. During the summer, Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives released a policy paper that took direct aim at the Rand Formula. It recommended that: “No clauses in any provincial legislation, regulation or collective agreement should require a worker to become a member of a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.”

Hudak calls this type of legislation “worker choice reforms.” Framing the issue in this way is misleading for two reasons. First, it overlooks the fact that legislation in Ontario does not require employees in the bargaining unit to become members of the union.

The one exception to this rule is when a clause, which makes union membership a condition of continued employment, is included in the collective agreement. In order for such a clause to be included, however, the majority of workers in the bargaining unit must vote to ratify the collective agreement. In other words, workers must collectively make any decision that makes union membership mandatory in their workplace.

In addition, framing these changes as providing “worker choice” does not take into account that unions are democratic organizations. In Ontario, a workplace only becomes unionized when at least 40 percent of employees have signed union cards and subsequently had more than 50 percent of employees in the bargaining unit vote in favour of unionization in a mandatory vote arranged by the Labour Board.

It is undemocratic to suggest that one worker’s individual choice not to pay their union dues should trump any collective decisions made by the bargaining unit.

Much like anti-union legislation in the U.S., the real world result is unavoidable wage depression according to labor representatives. The OFL gives the example of Caterpillar, a company which moved from London, Ontario to Indiana immediately after the state passed “Right-to-Work”:

In a high-profile case in early 2012, Caterpillar Inc. shifted diesel locomotive manufacturing from London, Ontario to Muncie, Indiana after the state passed right-to-work legislation. Workers at Caterpillar’s London plant had recently rejected a 50 percent wage cut.

In Muncie, hourly wages averaged $13.50 an hour, which was less than half of what skilled workers in London were earning.

In December 2012, just over one week after Michigan passed right-to-work legislation, General Motors announced that it was moving production of the next generation of one its models from Oshawa, Ontario to Lansing, Michigan.

Canadian union members currently enjoy a $6.19 per hour wage advantage over their non-union peers. If the Rand Formula is eliminated it is very likely that union resources will take a hit, the report states:

If the Rand Formula is dismantled in Ontario, union resources can be expected to decline, since some employees will choose to opt out of paying dues. This will undermine the financial viability of unions and force them to make difficult decisions about where to cut back. Unions will also be put in the difficult position of being obligated to represent all employees equitably whether or not they are paying dues. Jeffrey Murray, a management lawyer in Ontario, predicts that this situation is likely to breed resentment in the workplace and will foster divisive politics.

Union efforts to organize and bargain collectively will likely be impacted as well, tipping the balance of power further towards employers. With fewer resources, unions will also have diminished political clout to exercise during elections. It is not surprising that proposals for this kind of legislation in Ontario are coming from the Progressive Conservatives rather than the other major parties, both of which have relied on union support in past elections.

*Declining union resources will reduce the ability of the Canadian labour movement to push back against the low-wage agenda when the ability to do so is crucial.

This “state of the unions” need only point to American labor developments of late to argue against C-377 and the danger to workers it brings with it:

The reforms that Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives are proposing in Ontario are similar to legislation that has been passed in many U.S. states. President Obama and many others have correctly stated that this legislation only grants workers the “right- to-work for less.”

Much can be learned from the American experience about the impact this type of legislation would have in Ontario. Most certainly, Ontarians could expect lower wages, fewer benefits, and weaker unions. This “work for less” legislation is part of a broader agenda in which profits for a few are prioritized over the well-being of all Ontarians. Driven by an ideological anti-union agenda, right-wing politicians are pushing forward these reforms under the guise of worker “choice” and “freedom.” Given the fallout caused by this type of legislation, however, it is clear that it does not grant workers any “choice” other than to “work for less.”

We need to start a conversation, not only in union halls, but also in our homes and communities, about what is at stake if this type of American, anti-union legislation takes root in Ontario…

Read the entire OFL Report here.


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