Forget Duffy. Harper’s real war is with unions
NationalPost.com – Full Comment
31/10/13. Tasha Kheiriddin
While the political showdown making news this month has pitted Prime Minister Stephen Harper against Senator Mike Duffy, a more important battle is shaping up for the 2015 election. It’s between the Conservative Party and organized labour — as evidenced by the resolutions the party will be debating at its policy convention in Calgary this week.
Proposals include allowing secret ballots during strikes, banning the use of dues for political purposes, requiring increased financial disclosure by unions, and passing right-to-work legislation. The resolutions are moved by electoral district associations in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, and together represent what appears to be the largest block of resolutions on any one theme.
Why the focus on organized labour, and why now? In part, it’s ideological. While small-c conservatives respect freedom of association, they also respect the freedom not to associate. The labour movement’s rules — particularly the RAND formula, which obliges workers in unionized workplaces to join whether they want to or not — restricts workers’ freedom of choice. Unions also spend dues on causes that workers may not support, and demand workers follow their direction on strike action, even if workers may be opposed or not be able to afford the loss in pay.
The Tories’ antipathy toward unions also has a political aspect. Unions have long supported the NDP, now Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. And the Tories would like nothing better than to galvanize the labour movement behind NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (who is not a union man himself) and boost his party’s stock at the expense of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who currently leads in the polls. Dividing the centre-left vote is key to the Tories’ re-election strategy in 2015, and an energized union movement might be one way to ensure it.
Finally, for this government, reducing union power is also a practical imperative. The Conservatives have pledged to balance the federal budget by the time they go to the polls. One of the elements of their plan is downsizing government, which pits them directly against the Public Service Alliance of Canada. For two years now, PSAC has been fighting against Conservative cuts to the bureaucracy and the party’s policy of reduction by attrition. PSAC’s rallies and campaigns, however, have done nothing to dent the Tories’ resolve (long overdue, considering that they substantially grew the size of the bureaucracy during the early years of their mandate). Curtailing PSAC’s power and voice would help the Tories achieve their downsizing goals for both the short and long term.
Prior to their convention, the Tories also tackled the issue of union power in the House of Commons. In the last session, the government introduced Bill C-377, which would have required greater financial transparency by labour unions. The Senatekilled the legislation in June 2013 on privacy grounds; the charge was led by Senator Hugh Segal, who is also currently opposing the Senate suspensions motion.
The government will be reintroducing similar legislation this session. If the other, tougher resolutions make it from the convention floor to the floor of the House, it would be tantamount to declaring all-out war on Big Labour.
Unions are fighting back. PSAC is inviting its members to “crash the party” at the Tory convention. The National Union of Public and General Employees is running a series of television ads showcasing the benefits unions have fought for, including vacations and paternity leave. More significantly, this past August, the Auto Workers and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers combined into a single, more powerful entity, UNIFOR. And the labour movement in general is seeking new markets — employees in coffee shops, daycares, and big-box stores — to increase its member base.
If these trends persist, Election 2015 may be less about scandal, and more about substance. A left-right showdown on labour issues would suit both the Conservatives and NDP, by squeezing the Liberals in the middle. Forget the Senate scandal: Mr. Mulcair should hope Conservative delegates in Calgary pass as many of those anti-union resolutions as possible, if he wants to find a wedge issue with real staying power.
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