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Lowering our standards for workers' rights

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Missouri rallies against Right to Work & corporate greed. Photo: Jobs with Justi

The right-wing Fraser Institute has released a paper that, if implemented, would dramatically lower our standards for worker pay, workers' rights and workplace protections.

It urges governments in Ontario and B.C. to adopt American-style "right-to-work" (RTW) laws which violate a core principle upheld in Canadian law: if a majority of workers in a workplace vote to form a union, everyone should be a member and pay dues -- because all workers in that workplace benefit from the gains made by the union in their workplace.

Effectively, it would undermine unions' right to organize in Canada.

It also promotes the right-wing frame of the day: "worker choice". That's the language the Fraser Institute is touting in its latest paper. The frame is an American import; an expression of the oft-touted freedom values in that country. It's Orwellian language, really, because what we've witnessed under similar anti-worker laws in the U.S. is that workers there have far fewer options, worse working conditions and lower pay.

Here's the harsh reality of workers who live in American states that have implemented such anti-worker laws:

-  The average worker in RTW states earns $1,540 less a year than workers who live in states with more robust worker protection laws;

-  Median household income is $6,437 less ($46,402 vs. $52,839);

-  The per centage of jobs in low-wage occupations is higher (26.7 per cent vs. 19.5 per cent);

-  Poverty rates are higher (15.3 per cent vs. 13.1 per cent);

-  More infants die (infant mortality rates are 15 per cent higher);

-  And more workers die in the workplace (36 per cent higher).

Learn more about the harmful effects of RTW laws in the U.S. here.

Clearly, this is not the direction we should be advising our governments to head towards. But the Fraser Institute's latest volley is part of a strategic, concerted effort among right-wing groups in Canada to launch wave after wave of assaults on this country's labour movement following the great disruption of the 2008-09 global economic recession.

Ontario is proving to be one of the major testing grounds for this concerted effort. Shortly after the Ontario government plunged into deficit as a result of recession -- coupled with some of its own questionable decisions, such as ORNG and cancelled gas plant projects -- right-wingers started in with a major blamestorming campaign to pin the deficit on unionized workers.

The fact of the matter is that polling reflects the majority of Canadians believe unions effectively improve the salaries and working conditions of Canadian employees; they believe that unions are necessary and important in society.

The goal of the right-wing narrative in Canada is to stir resentment, to pit workers against workers, to erode the public's support for this legitimate public institution.

The Fraser Institute's most recent paper would take Ontario back to a world where corporate giants could exploit workers with impunity, because workers on their own lack the resources to do much about it. They are powerless.

As this Toronto Star editorial aptly states, the labour movement plays an important role in our society: "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. Statistics Canada rightly counts union membership as a key 'indicator of well-being' and it rose last year. About 31.5 per cent of employees were represented by a union, up from 31.2 per cent in 2011."

In Ontario, 28 per cent of all employees belong to a union. As the Canadian Labour Congress calculated, their weekly payroll amounts to more than $1.7 billion -- a third of the total provincial payroll. "On average, unionized workers earned $6.11/hour more than non-union employees. That union advantage translated into $351.6 million more every week paid into local economies to support local businesses and community services."

That union advantage contributes to all Ontarians' economic well-being.

By urging Ontario to emulate American states that embrace anti-worker laws, the Fraser Institute is prescribing a race to the bottom. Contrary to the Fraser Institute's claim that it would benefit Ontario's economy, research from the Economic Policy Institute shows the reality in American RTW states has been exactly the opposite of what advocates had promised.

Implementing anti-worker laws would slow down Ontario's economy, because once workers earn less, they spend less -- and right now it's workers who are propping up economic growth by spending locally.

It would put more workers in dire straights, because they'd lose protections that unions secured for all workers generations ago.

It would weaken workers' rights, making it harder for a worker to turn down unsafe work.

It would turn back the clock to the days before Ontario had a stable middle class.

It would return Ontario to the days in the late-1800s and early-1900s where worker strife led to work stoppages, strikes, and labour unrest.

We've come too far to turn back now. Our standards are, and will continue to be, higher than that. We are all worth more.

Trish Hennessy is director of the CCPA Ontario office, located in Toronto. The CCPA Ontario will be posting a compendium of papers to help inform workers about the benefits of the Rand Formula and the current assault on workers' rights.

Photo: Jobs with Justice/flickr

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