The growing attack on labour

By Ian Johnson

In recent years, the intensity and range of attacks on specific unions and the labour movement in general have intensified. There should be no doubt to anyone associated with labour that there is a major onslaught underway.

This attack is more than the all-too-frequent concessions being sought by governments and employers in negotiations, as bad as these moves are. This attack is aimed squarely aimed at the rights and benefits of union members and the fundamental operations of unions.

In the U.S., we have seen the rise of so-called “right-to-work” laws which make it illegal to require workers to join a union or pay union dues to get or keep a job. These laws exist in 23 states, mostly in the South and West. But they seem to be expanding to other states with long-established labour rights such as Wisconsin and Michigan. Union membership is drastically affected by such laws. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, union membership stands at 6.48% in the states with right-to-work legislation, compared to 10.8% in states without these laws.

Labour legislation may not be yet as bad in Canada, but it seems to be heading in the same direction. For example, according to the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights website (, there were five pieces of federal and provincial legislation in each of 2011 and 2012 which are aimed directly at interfering with full and fair collective bargaining.

At the federal level, these were pre-emptive measures by the Harper government against CP Air workers, Air Canada employees, and Canada Post workers. They were intended not just to end or prevent job action, but also to dictate the final terms, or to set up a biased process by which the outstanding terms would be dictated.

At the provincial level, the situation was not better, with the most infamous of them all, namely, Bill 115 from September 2012 in Ontario. This bill was intended to freeze all compensation for two years for school board employees as well as to give unprecedented powers to the Minister of Education to prevent strikes or lockouts or to impose terms of new agreements. It also includes Bill 38 from 2012 in Newfoundland and Labrador to force public sector workers to vote on a final offer from government, and Bill 22 from 2012 in B.C. to take away the right to strike on public school teachers, imposing a wage freeze and sending all remaining issues to a government-appointed mediator.

Worse still, we now have Bill C-377, which was a federal Private Member’s bill that has been passed by the House of Commons in December and which is now awaiting Senate approval. It will require every union to file a detailed public information return with the Canada Revenue Agency on expenditures over $5,000. It will also force them to detail the percentage of time employees dedicate to political and lobbying activities.

But no one is fooled into thinking that this bill has anything to do with transparency or accountability. It is clearly intended to undermine the rights of expression and assembly as well as the financial and institutional security of the labour movement.

To add insult to injury, both the Saskatchewan government and the Ontario Conservative Party were proposing labour law changes in 2012 that would effectively strip unions of many of their powers and give businesses a freer hand. They are clearly designed to move labour legislation in this country much closer to U.S. right-to-work laws.

In other words, all of these developments clearly point to a major attack to the very existence of the labour movement and the rights, benefits and programs we have all worked hard to achieve. Jim Silver and the late Errol Black so powerfully summed up our current situation in August 2012 for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (

“…We can’t stress enough just how important this struggle is to the trade union movement in Canada, and to the very future of this country. For the country as a whole, the stakes are especially high, since the forces promoting anti-union legislation are the same forces that want to do away with employment standards legislation, Medicare, most elements of the social safety net, and other programs that benefit working people. These are all programs that were put in place over the years because of the determined and informed efforts of working people in this country.”

They went on to say: “Vibrant unions are a central part of building a better world. That’s why the right-wing forces are working so hard to destroy them. We can’t let this happen.”
We must re-double our efforts to ensure their sound advice is not ignored and becomes a central focus of all we do as a union and as part of the labour movement.

– Ian Johnson is NSGEU’s Servicing Coordinator/Policy Analyst.

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