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The push-polls prove it again, Canadians hate unions … really, really, really they do! Happy Labour Day!

Photo: UFCW International Union/flickr

VICTORIA, B.C.

NOTE TO READERS: Since the Alberta chapter of the Merit Contractors Association, a group of non-union construction companies, seems to have recycled much of its past opinion survey and press release on union "transparency," I thought I'd recycle most of my 2012 post responding to nearly identical claims made by the same group. Remember, it's not plagiarism if you're only plagiarizing yourself.

When I was a kid growing up in British Columbia in the 1950s, there was a holiday at the end of the summer called "Labour Day" on which Canadians celebrated the vast contribution of working people to the past, present and future of our great country.

Unions, groups of working people who pooled their modest individual strength to bargain collectively and ensure that a fair share of the great wealth they created ended up in the hands of ordinary families, would sometimes gather for picnics on this holiday, which was tinged with true patriotism, and sing songs.

One of those songs, a particular favourite in those long-ago days, went like this: "It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade; Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid; Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made; But the union makes us strong…."

Well, those days are gone -- the part about "but the union makes us strong," anyway -- and I can almost hear many of you, dear readers, silently mouthing "Thank God!"

Today, our Tea Party of Canada government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is dedicated to signing "trade agreements" that ensure high-paying Canadian jobs are exported as quickly as possible to more efficient foreign jurisdictions, such as China, the role of public education is well on its way to being outsourced to corporate shills, and the final long weekend of our short Canadian summer is devoted to what might be called the Seventy-Two Hour Hate, a three-day frenzy of official- and media-sponsored loathing for the weakened vestiges of the labour movement.

Oddly enough, though, this occasion is still known as "Labour Day."

This year, as in the recent past, we are marking Labour Day 2014 with the traditional publication in the media of "studies" by right-wing think tanks that "prove" how we'd all be better off if there were no unions, no pensions and no public health care, as well as with a "new" poll that purports to show everyone is in agreement that unions are at best an irrelevant anachronism, at worst an outright menace.

OK, enough with the sarcasm. The survey was conducted for the Merit Contractors Association, a group that describes itself as "the voice of open shop construction in Alberta." Open shop, in this context, means non-union and prepared to do pretty well anything to stay that way.

The poll was conducted by Innovative Research Group, Merit said in its press release on Friday, which otherwise was little different from statements it has made about similar polls conducted for the association by other pollsters in the past.

The survey purports to show, in the words of Merit President Stephen Kushner, that "Albertans have a strong desire for labour reform on union fiscal transparency, worker choice and a fair and equitable labour market."

Now, two points need to be made about this statement:

1)    Merit's claims about the survey are hard to verify because the group has not provided us with access to a copy of the poll and the questions asked of respondents.

2)    Several of the phrases in Kushner's statement, which may have been used in the poll, are coded expressions that do not mean what they appear to say. "Union fiscal transparency" means forcing unions to comply with expensive reporting rules more severe than those required of corporations and other organizations. "Worker choice" means effectively depriving workers of the choice of being union members. "A fair and equitable labour market" means U.S.-style "right to work" laws that make it impossible for unions to operate.

In the past, this poll was conducted for Merit by another pollster that provided details about the questions asked and the number of respondents. It was possible to argue based on that information that the poll was a "push-poll" that asked questions clearly designed to make unions look bad, thereby leading respondents to the obvious "correct" conclusions about how to deal with that badness.

Deprived of this information about the current poll, it is impossible to say that this is also a push poll. However, the probability, given Merit's history and well-known position, plus the loaded terminology repeated in Kushner's news release, is quite high that the results of the 2014 poll are not a legitimate measure of public opinion.

Unlike its previous pollster, which had a reputation for serious public opinion research and was taken to task publicly for its role in promoting a push-poll, Innovative Research Group appears from its website to be principally a public relations firm specializing in issues management, corporate communications and fund-raising. This is not a comment on the quality of its public opinion research, of course, because we do not have an example of the work to comment on.

Merit has not yet responded to my request, made Friday afternoon as soon as I became aware of their news release, for more information about the poll. Perhaps they left work early to enjoy the Labour Day weekend.

Regardless, it is easy to get poll respondents to say they support "transparency" of union finances -- a position for which an argument can be made.

However, I can guarantee you that with the right loaded questions it would be similarly easy to get like results in a poll asking about the benefits of financial transparency for governments, private corporations doing business with the public, public and private employers during negotiations, far-right "think tanks" and, just for one more example, non-union construction employers' lobby groups. A good argument can be made for all these ideas as well.

Similarly, one could use push-poll questions to elicit responses that would allow us to confidently state that a majority of Canadians, including people who work in management, support a ban on corporate political donations and an end to charitable status for corporate think tanks that engage in constant political advocacy.

Be that as it may, most Merit Contractors members are virulently anti-union small construction firms that have banded together to pool their strength and lobby collectively (you know, like a union) for laws that would make it much more difficult for unions to organize Merit employees and represent them effectively. As a necessary sideline, they make a big effort to persuade the public that this is a good idea.

At any rate, for all their rhetoric about "choice" and "freedom" and their alleged concern for the rights of working people, I think it's fair to say that Merit members' principal interests in this are avoiding the inconvenience of dealing with unions generally as well as finding ways to compete with larger, often more successful, unionized contractors.

If they can recast their competitive struggles as a fight for "worker rights" and see the imposition of legislation that also makes it harder for their chief competitors to operate as they do now, perhaps they can increase they market share.

I wonder if IRG has done any parallel -- and methodologically similar -- polls on how many Albertans support the full disclosure of company financial information, especially during union negotiations? They might also ask how many Albertans want their tax dollars to subsidize excessive contracts with private companies, large executive bonuses and severance payments, or any advertising, including glossy corporate and government brochures.

You get the idea. Probably almost all of our imaginary respondents would agree with the conclusions suggested by these questions too -- especially they're worded like those in a typical push poll.

Well, never mind. Later today, from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the Edmonton and District Labour Council will hold its annual Labour Day picnic at Giovanni Caboto Park.

This popular event will attract a huge throng of Edmonton's many unemployed and working poor citizens, hardship that stubbornly persists despite Alberta's seeming economic prosperity. Similar events organized by unions will take place in communities all across Canada.

My guess is that most Canadians, polled about this informal annual charitable effort by unions and their members, would strongly approve. I wonder what they would say if they knew the proposals pushed by the Merit Contractors and their ilk would make these picnics illegal?

Happy Labour Day!

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

Photo: UFCW International Union/flickr

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