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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2013

Labour must transform itself

By Wayne Peters
Historically, unions, and especially those in the public sector, have been major social, economic and political forces. They have played a key role in bringing the working class together to demand and realize a more democratic and fair society, with broadly shared prosperity, greater economic equality, quality public services and supportive social assistance programs for all citizens.

But over the last five years, fiscal austerity policies — the product of neoliberal ideologies, not sound economic evidence — have devastated these societal ideals, ostensibly to achieve much-needed deficit reduction and balanced budgets. The deficits, of course, were largely due to misguided spending, deregulation and unwise tax cuts in the first place.

Nevertheless, these deficits provided a convenient pretext for cutting public spending, decreasing and privatizing public services, reducing the public workforce, eliminating social programs and generally decreasing the size and cost of government. Along the way, a far friendlier business environment emerged with less regulation and lower corporate taxes, ensuring an even greater widening of the prosperity gap.

The opportunity to create disdain for public sector workers, and the unions that represent them, has not been lost on the advocates of such austerity measures. Public servants have been routinely demonized in the public eye as being expensive burdens on the state with salaries, pensions and other benefits that far exceed those in the private sector. Of course, such actions only serve to divide the working class along public/private lines and to force them into a race to the bottom that leads to lower working standards for everyone.

One of the real prizes for neoliberal economic policy is the destruction of the working class power embodied by the labour movement. Under the scourge of austerity and aided by globalization, aggressive employers, hostile government policies and public cynicism, we are now seeing a sustained and aggressive attack from the political right on labour’s capacity to shape public policy.

Public sector unions and their members are the prime target. If they yield, private sector unions won’t be far behind and, of course, without organized labour, non-unionized workers then will have no hope at all.

This attack has been waged in a number of ways by both the federal and provincial governments. We are familiar with Bill C-377 which imposes onerous and expensive reporting requirements on labour organizations about their financial activities. This legislation has been amended by the Senate and referred back to the House of Commons.

However, it has now died with prorogation but will almost surely be reintroduced in the next session of Parliament as it is near and dear to the Harper Government’s plan for weakening the rights of the millions of unionized workers.

More concerning, though, are the efforts in some jurisdictions to introduce what are often called “right-to-work” laws, but which are more properly termed “free-ridership” laws. Such American-style laws prohibit collective agreements from containing clauses that obligate workers represented by a union to pay dues to the union for that representation. This allows workers who opt out of paying dues, to obtain a free ride in that they still benefit from the union’s collective bargaining efforts, and the union still owes them a duty of fair representation.

A new Fraser Institute report titled Implications of US Worker Choice Laws for British Columbia and Ontario advocates for the adoption of such laws in Canada. The report argues that such laws generally reduce the proportion of workers covered by collective bargaining — as if this is a good thing — and increase economic development and employment growth.

The report cites analysis for the United States that shows increases in economic development of about 1.8 per cent, and in employment by about 1 per cent, in states where such policies are adopted. The report applies these results, combined with experiences in Oklahoma, to conclude that similar increases would be realized in British Columbia and Ontario.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has released a statement in response that paints a very different picture for those states which adopted free-ridership laws. It cites statistics compiled by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in its primer titled ‘Right to Work’ for Less.

According to their data, in states that have imposed such laws, the average worker earns $1,540 less per year; median household income is about 12 per cent less; the percentage of jobs in low wage occupations is about 37 per cent higher; poverty rates are about 17 per cent higher; infant mortality rates are about 15 per cent higher; and 36 per cent more workers die on the job.

Despite such damning evidence, free ridership does have political support in Canada. All workers and their unions ought to be paying attention. So, how should labour respond to threats such as these, especially when it’s happening at a time when the broad-based strength of the traditional social-democratic labour movement has waned significantly?

A Toronto Star editorial, published this past Labour Day, says, “Business may not welcome it, but organized labour is a well-established force for social good — one that has raised the standard of living of a great many of us.” While we may believe this to be true, the labour movement would do well to take stock of how it does its work and how it is positioned so that it might live up to this description.

Labour’s challenge is in transforming itself with new ways of organizing and representing its members that enable it to be more proactive, rather than reactive. It must be able to spearhead and sustain broad-based, publicly-supported social movements that champion a more democratic and fair society for everyone.

So, where does CAUT fit in all of this? It must join with its many existing coalitions and partners and other like-minded organizations that share its progressive views about post-secondary education and a democratic, civil society. It is only through this collective strength that a more democratic and fair society can be realized for everyone, and that the greater good of public post-secondary education can be promoted as an indispensable component of society at large.