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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Canada's anti-union lobby is at the heart of the deceptive campaign for more TFWs

| July 21, 2014
Jason Kenney

Judging from what they read and hear in the news, Canadians can be forgiven for concluding a large number of organizations representing a broad range of opinions are lobbying public-spiritedly for more access to Temporary Foreign Workers by Canadian businesses.

But while many individual business owners would no doubt love to have a direct pipeline to the huge international pool of compliant, vulnerable and easy-to-exploit foreign workers instead of yielding to market pressure to pay Canadians a living wage, the seeming multitude of public voices calling for more access to TFWs originates mainly with a small group of individuals and well-financed interlocking organizations.

It turns out that this network involves many of the same people sitting on the boards of each other's groups. What's more, these groups are repeating the same key messages and skillfully feeding press releases to Canada's dysfunctional mainstream media to generate sound and fury against the modest restrictions on Ottawa's TFW Program.

As readers will recall, those restrictions were put in place by Employment Minister Jason Kenney last spring. The minister was responding to public revulsion at the program's apparent goals of exploiting vulnerable foreign workers and suppressing Canadian wages.

So it cannot be mere coincidence that in almost every case the main groups calling for more TFWs turn out to have a long history of anti-union advocacy. In some cases, before the TFW issue came along, their sole purpose was attacking the right of working people to bargain collectively.

This web of anti-union advocacy groups includes the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Restaurants Canada, the Workplace Democracy Institute of Canada, the Merit Contractors Association, "Working Canadians," and the Canadian Labour Watch Association.

Even the mysterious National Citizens Coalition, the granddaddy of all Canadian far-right AstroTurf groups, once headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, puts in a cameo appearance in this convoluted tale!

Each of these groups is not forthcoming about its finances and, it is reasonable to conclude given their purported mandates to represent to represent a different segment of the Canadian economy from "taxpayers," to restaurant owners, to ordinary working stiffs who just want a little "freedom" in their workplace, is deceptive about its true objectives.

So it should surprise no one that this same web of organizations has emerged as the leading advocate for the exploitation of vulnerable and poorly paid foreign workers to replace uppity Canadian young people in low-wage, low-skill Canadian workplaces or, in the case of the CTF, to use the purported need for foreign workers as a way to attack unemployment insurance for working Canadians.

Perhaps the best way to understand the revelation that the TFW lobby has many heads but is only one beast is to look at what little we know about the secretive Canadian Labour Watch Association, founded by several of the other groups in 2000.

While the CLWA describes itself as an organization that "advances employee rights in labour relations," it is fair to say after a review of its materials that its principal goal is to advance the goals of employers who are opposed to unions in their workplaces. In other words: union busting.

According to Canadians for Responsible Advocacy, the "industry organizations" that founded the CLWA in 2000 included Restaurants Canada (formerly the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association), the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Retail Council of Canada and the Merit Contractors Association of Alberta, which represents a group of non-union contractors.

The CLWA does not disclose financial statements, identify major contributors, indicate its membership policy or criteria, list its bylaws or identify its connections to other right-wing advocacy organizations, the CFRA reports. However, we do know about its members and board of directors, a list that tells an interesting story.

The CLWA's president and only listed employee is John Mortimer, a prominent member of the board of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Member associations include the CFIB, Merit Contractors associations in several provinces, the Retail Council of Canada, Restaurants Canada and the National Citizens Coalition.

The CLWA's board, according to its website, includes representatives of the CFIB, the Retail Council of Canada, Restaurants Canada, the Merit Contractors, the Canadian Taxpayers Association (although this relationship is not declared) and the Conseil du Patronat du Québec (the Quebec Business Council), another consistent opponent of unionization.

Restaurants Canada, by the way, was founded in 1944 as the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association to fight against the Mackenzie King Government's food rationing and menu price-control policies when the war against Nazi Germany, to which many Canadians were sacrificing their lives, started to cut into profits.

Whether there is a formal connection between the CLWA and its associated groups with the so-called "Working Canadians" AstroTurf organization and the "Workplace Democracy Institute of Canada" can only be speculated upon because all these groups are very economical with information about their operations.

Working Canadians may be little more than a website and an advertising budget provided by someone with deep pockets. It appears to have been set up to counter the Working Families Coalition created in Ontario by 15 unions, which openly declared their involvement on the Working Families website.

Working Canadians, by contrast, provides no information about its funding and purports to be a "volunteer organization" that is "concerned that union leaders have too much influence over government."

But it is evocative that Working Canadians' only known volunteer is Catherine Swift, president of the CFIB in 2000 when the CLWA was founded and well known for her opinion that "what would be ideal is getting rid of public-sector unions entirely." So it is hard to imagine that the mysterious principals behind both Working Canadians and the CLWA, and the network that supports them, are not well known to one another.

As for the WDIC, its way into the web of TFW Program advocates comes via the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, through CTF board member Karen Selick and a CTF staffer, Atlantic Canada Communications Director Kevin Lacey.

There are probably many other such groups, because the corporate-financed right prolifically cooks up fake AstroTurf organizations with positive-sounding mandates, inclusive-sounding names and disguised agendas.

The links among this well-established network of anti-union agitators have been obvious for many years.

That the same players who hold the most virulently anti-union views and the most offensive opinions about the supposed shortcomings of Canadian workers should turn out to be the loudest advocates, and in some places the only advocates, for the TFW Program suggests the true agenda behind the vociferous TFW lobby.

It is quite apparent the goals of the Canadian Taxpayers Association, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, and the various trade associations involved are to weaken the bargaining power of Canadian families (including many of their own naïve members), keep wages low, keep all workers vulnerable and re-elect the Harper Government.

If the Harper Government is re-elected, of course, even today's modest restrictions on the TFW Program are sure to soon disappear, snipped away as so much "red tape."

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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