Harper's discreet class war against working people

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The willingness of much of the Canadian media to go along with the Conservative narrative about Stephen Harper's "moderation" has allowed the prime minister to wage a discreet class war against working people without attracting too much attention.

Canadians don't like Harper's anti-worker agenda -- when they notice it. That's why there's been such a public outcry since the temporary foreign worker program was exposed as a mechanism by which the Harper government has flooded the country with hundreds of thousands of cheap foreign workers, thereby suppressing Canadian wages in the interests of helping corporations.

Apart from this clumsy fiasco, the Harperites have been adroit at keeping their anti-worker bias under the radar. Instead, they've directed their attacks against unions, portraying them as undemocratic organizations run by "union bosses" who ignore the interests of ordinary workers.

It's revealing that this harsh critique of unions largely comes from business think-tanks and conservative politicians -- folks who aren't generally known for championing workers' rights but who apparently can't sleep at night at the thought workers aren't being well represented by the people they elect to run their unions.

Of course, the real reason Harper attacks unions is because they've been effective in promoting the interests of working people over the past century. By establishing norms for higher wages and benefits in the workplace, and by pushing governments to implement universal social programs, unions are largely the reason we have a middle class in this country.

But Harper has long aspired to crush union power -- as his hero Margaret Thatcher did in Britain. Thatcher's legacy is severe inequality in Britain, just as Ronald Reagan's anti-unionism promoted extreme inequality in the U.S. Canada is rapidly catching up to both.

Since winning his majority, the prime minister has increasingly given vent to his anti-union venom. Last fall, he brought in a bill placing an onerous and unnecessary financial reporting burden on unions, while sparing professional and business associations a similar burden.

Breaking the back of public sector unions is key to any plan to smash labour power in Canada, since the public sector is much more unionized -- 75 per cent, compared to just 16 per cent of the private sector -- and therefore better equipped to withstand attacks.

So Harper's latest salvo -- legislation enabling the cabinet to intervene in collective bargaining at Crown corporations -- is aimed at revving up his campaign against public sector unions.

Business think-tanks, like the Fraser Institute, are helping out by generating papers showing that pay is higher in the public sector.

That's true; that's what collective action achieves. But the difference is not dramatic, and is mostly due to higher public sector wages for women and minorities in low-paid jobs. This is offset by generally lower pay for public sector professionals and managers, compared with their private sector counterparts, notes Andrew Jackson, senior policy adviser to the Broadbent Institute.

But harping on the allegedly overpaid public sector allows the Harper team to do what it does best: drive a wedge between people. Harper hopes to stoke resentments in struggling private sector workers, duping them into thinking the big rewards have gone to public sector workers rather than to where they've actually gone -- into corporate coffers and CEO pay.

There are raw emotions at play here. Knocking down public sector workers a peg or two might provide satisfaction to private sector workers who've seen their own wages and benefits eroded, and yet have to pay taxes that fund public sector salaries.

The problem is that once the powerful public sector unions are gutted, there won't be much left of the Canadian labour movement, leaving workers not much better protected than their predecessors in the early industrial era who risked their lives battling for the right to unionize.

Of course, without unions, working people will be able to rely on new tools like ... well ... social media.

As Harper draws on the full resources of the state to ramp up his class war, workers can count on tweeting any of their concerns or sharing Facebook photos of their friends working longer hours for less.

Linda McQuaig is author, with Neil Brooks, of The Trouble with Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World and How We Can Take It Back.

Photo: Rob Caballero/flickr

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