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Behind The Numbers delivers timely, progressive commentary on issues that affect Canadians, including the economy, poverty, inequality, climate change, budgets, taxes, public services, employment and much more. Contributors include staff and research associates from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).The views expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCPA. Visit the blog at Behindthenumbers.ca.

Right-to-Work: The (Ayn?) Rand Formula

| October 17, 2012
Photo: MN AFL-CIO/Flickr

There's reluctance among Canadian proponents to call for it by name. But Right-to-Work (longer, harder, without representation or recourse, for less money and fewer sick days or pee breaks) seems to be the flavour du jour amongst… ahem… politicians of a certain age.

(By which I mean the Age of Dickens. Pip-pip, cheerio, y'all.)

There are some folks who think we hit the high-water mark for social progress in the workplace somewhere between Cro-magnon Man and Ward Cleaver. So to bring things back into balance, a few individuals and their well-connected friends are hell-bent on dragging unionized workers -- for their own good, of course -- behind the woodshed to administer a free-market thrashing.

(You know -- along with castor oil and some leeches. Cause there's nothing like a good bleeding to convince workers that progress is defined by how closely it resembles The Good Old Days. Am I right, Caterpillar?)

True, most of us feel that a living wage is not overrated. And I suspect a healthy majority of the population would be somewhat ticked to find their paycheques slashed -- even halved -- at a time when debt-to-income ratios are at record levels and continue to increase.

But for those just a wee bit uncomfortable with the challenges to social hierarchy that over the past few decades have been enshrined in legislation (like the Rand Formula), a return to an "I know my place" earnestness and other "please-sir-may-I-have-some-more" displays of gratitude from desperate workers must seem almost charmingly retro…in a "fetch me my pipe and slippers" kind of way.

Enter Right-to-Work legislation, which makes it illegal for unions to require workers -- each of whom benefits from the collective agreement the union negotiated -- to pay dues, directly targeting the financial sustainability of unions and their ability to support workers in demanding and exercising their democratic and human rights in and out of the workplace.

The thing is, "Right-to-Work" still remains a dubious -- even Orwellian -- term, probably because we have a sweatshop-sized vat of research documenting examples of what this scheme has meant for those American jurisdictions that have implemented it. Higher rates of poverty and child mortality; lower per-capita income, life expectancy and standard of living; fewer people covered by health insurance; and significantly lower levels of worker productivity.

Let me say that again. Right-to-Work states experience significantly lower levels of worker productivity (which I guess free-market types feel is so totally worth it if it means they can bash a union or two).

So it's no wonder that, in Canada, recent calls for this brand of social and economic regression avoid the Right-to-Work label. Instead we're treated to a bit of pearl-clutching in question period as (at least) one elected representative bemoans the money spent by "big labour" on initiatives not supported by members (such as, you know, an election primer that sets out the position of each political party on a variety of issues. Or PSAC's campaign to fight cuts to the public service… where its members are employed).

Then, against the backdrop of these histrionics, we're treated to the not-at-all innovative demand that workers should be able to "opt-out" of paying union dues (without having to "opt-out" of the benefits those dues have paid and continue to pay for through the collective bargaining process). But don't confuse this with "right to work": it's really the "enhancement of workers rights and freedoms."

Soooo… anyone want to buy a bridge?

While not an isolated incident, Tim Hudak's White Paper "Paths to Prosperity" was perhaps one of the boldest -- well, maybe just one of the longest -- calls so far for Right-to-Work legislation… and even he shied away from using the actual term. Instead, the document is so littered with euphemisms like "flexible" that one might be forgiven for making the assumption that Tim thinks Ontario's path to prosperity will be paved by hordes of yoga instructors.

Then again, "yoganomics" (especially for those studying at the Lululemon school) might explain this version of events: "Forty years ago, Ontario's skies shone bright with endless opportunities in manufacturing, skilled trades, professional services and a burgeoning service sector. Multiple paths all led towards a stable middle class lifestyle… Sadly during the last decade Ontario veered off the prosperous path and began closing the doors of opportunity."

And what changed this idyllic land of opportunity?

… wait for it…

Labour legislation. (Cue thunderclap.)

What's missing from this picture of an Ontario hamstrung by pesky workplace safety requirements or a labour relations board that might be a bit too "invasive" where employers are concerned? Stagnant wages (the starting point of which coincides with the first wave of corporate-led attacks on the gains made by organized labour). Entrenched and growing inequality. Household debt at over 160 per cent. Trends that labour legislation and unionization and fair wages seek to confront and curtail.

Apparently the problem with unionization and labour legislation is that they "close the doors of opportunity," doors that are presumably flung open only when inequality and job insecurity and an inadequate standard of living is allowed to flourish. Recently retired Dalton McGuinty might spend some time thinking about these failed policies in light of his disregard for the collective bargaining process and public sector workers.

The OECD, not exactly a bastion of left-wing thought, points out that inequality "breeds social resentment and generates political instability."

But Right-to-Work proponents shrug that off. Instead, they invite us to imagine how much more enhanced and flexible and downright better things would be if we had more of this inequality business!

Oh, and more gruel too, please.

Photo: MN AFL-CIO/Flickr

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