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As 2012 comes to close, here's a recap of the major events and trends impacting workers in Canada over the past year.
Austerity hits workers in Canada and abroad
The Canadian government stayed firmly seated aboard the global spending-cutting bandwagon this year, despite suggestions from sources as austerity-loving as the IMF that cuts to state spending do more to slow economic growth than to boost it.
Through various policy changes and the whirlwind of legislative reforms included in its 2012 budget and budget implementation bills, this year the Harper government brought in the following measures:
New rules for Employment Insurance (EI) that make it harder for seasonal workers to access benefits, while forcing those unemployed who are lucky enough to qualify for benefits to accept jobs that are further from home, and that pay up to 30% less than their previous job, or risk being cut off.
An increase from 65 to 67 years of age to qualify for Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement benefits.
An increase in age of retirement, from 60 to 65, for public service workers hired after 2012, and deep cuts to the proportion of their pension costs that will be covered by the government.
The elimination of over 19,000 jobs from the federal public service over the next three years. By November, over half of those jobs had already been cut.
New rules depriving seasonal foreign workers of access to parental benefits through EI (a system into which those workers pay, just like Canadian workers, through regular deductions from their wages).
Meanwhile, federal finance minister Jim Flaherty and some provincial ministers blocked movement on expanding the Canadian Pension Plan, citing the slow economy as an impediment to making the required public investment. Proponents of a stronger, more comprehensive CPP, such as Ontario’s finance minister and the Canadian Labour Congress, argue that the current climate of depressed wages and precarious employment is precisely what makes a stronger public pension plan necessary now.
Canada, of course, has not so far been subject to austerity reforms as extreme as those sweeping Europe, where unemployment rates of up to 25 per cent persist alongside devastating cuts to public jobs and social programs. On November 14, millions of workers joined a day of action and general strikes, reported to be the biggest workers' strike in European history.
Controversy explodes over growing use of indentured migrant labour
This fall, Canada's grossly exploitative temporary foreign worker program came under heavy public and media scrutiny following the revelation of a Chinese mining company's plan to import hundreds of temporary foreign labourers to British Columbia.
(Perhaps the company, HD Mining, had been encouraged by the Conservative's recent change to program rules allowing employers to pay migrant workers up to 15 per cent less than the going market rate.)
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) issued permits to HD Mining to employ over 200 temporary Chinese workers at a coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., based on the company's claim that it could not find any Canadian workers for the jobs.
In November, locals of the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union filed a motion asking the Federal Court to overturn those permits. Another union had unearthed recruitment ads originally posted by the company that listed the ability to speak Mandarin as an essential qualification -- a useful means of excluding domestic workers.
The uproar that ensued triggered HRSDC to announce a review of the foreign temporary worker program. (It has not so far revealed any details of what the review will cover.)
This case turned public and media attention to the trend by which employers across the country, in nearly every industry, are using temporary foreign workers in ever-greater numbers. Since 2006, more workers have entered Canada every year as temporary workers than as immigrants.
In November, fresh on the heels of the HD Mining controversy, four Mexican workers who'd worked at a Tim Hortons in B.C. brought a case to the province's Human Rights Tribunal, accusing their former employer of abuse.
Governments continue to curtail right to strike
The Harper government continued to indulge its appetite for suppressing strikes this year.
In March, it intervened in a pair of disputes between Air Canada and its pilots, mechanics, baggage handlers and cargo agents. Rather than waiting for a strike and then issuing the predictable back-to-work legislation, the government simply ordered both cases to arbitration and prohibiting any work stoppage. The law instructed the labour board to settle the dispute taking into account specific factors that clearly favoured Air Canada's interests over those of the union.
In May, the Conservatives issued legislation forcing 4,800 striking locomotive engineers, conductors and yardmen Canadian Pacific Railway, the country's biggest freight rail carrier, back to work.
Meanwhile, in Ontario, the Liberal government enacted Bill 115 over the summer, declaring it illegal for the province's elementary and secondary school teachers to strike for at least the next two years. (The bill also imposes a wage freeze and other strict terms on the teachers’ collective bargaining agreements.) The backlash has seen thousands of Ontario teachers and students stage walkouts across the province this month.
Bill C-377 to strangle unions with red tape, privacy intrusions
Unions and legal experts were aghast to see Bill C-377 pass in the House of Commons earlier this month. The bill will require labour organizations to publicly disclose extremely detailed records of their finances.
The Conservatives say it's only fair that the public should see how unions spend their money, given the income tax deduction union members can claim for the dues they pay. (What they don't mention is that other groups whose members enjoy the exact same tax breaks, like professional associations, aren't required to report anything under this slanted bill.)
Unions say the bill will saddle them with outrageously time-consuming and costly paperwork, invade the privacy of their members and the businesses they work with, and give employers access to information that will afford them an upper hand when negotiating agreements with their unionized employees or competitively bidding for jobs.
Right-to-free-ride laws expand across U.S., threaten to take hold in Canada
This year saw several additional U.S. states adopt “right-to-work” laws that exempt workers covered by union-negotiated collective agreements from paying union dues.
Earlier this month, Michigan became the 24th U.S. state to adopt such a law, heralding the weakening of unions there as their funding base is compromised.
“The so-called 'right to work' laws deal with the question of whether employees who receive the protection and benefits bargained by a union should get those representation rights for free,” wrote Canadian law professor David Doorey in a blog post commenting on the Michigan law. “A more accurate moniker is 'Right to Free Ride' off the work of the union and the union members, since that is what the laws do.”
Michigan is a leading auto manufacturing state that competes with Ontario's auto sector. Weakened unions leading to deep cuts in wages and benefits there would intensify the pressure on Ontario workers to also work for less.
Canadian politicians may even beat them to it. In September, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre declared his intention to bring right-to-free-ride laws to Canada. In July, the leader of Ontario's opposition Conservative party released a white paper calling for the same.
Workers fight back with diversified tactics
It's been a difficult year for workers, to say the least. Murray Dobbin, in a recent column on the state of labour in Canada, concludes that “workers, particularly in the private sector, haven't been this vulnerable and insecure since before the Second World War.”
In the face of these difficulties, workers have been exploring new strategies to defend their well-being, with some encouraging results.
Workers action centres in Toronto, Montreal, Windsor, Hamilton and other cities have been very active this year, using direct action campaigns to win back stolen wages and otherwise force employers to uphold the rights of individual workers.
The Canadian Auto Workers and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions announced this year their plan to join forces to create a larger, single union. The new union will be the largest private-sector union in Canada, counting some 310,000 members from sectors including automotive, forestry, energy, telecommunications and media. It is hoped that a union of this size will be able to provide a powerful counterbalance to the business and right-wing interests currently dominating Canadian politics and labour relations.
Grassroots activists working with groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN Canada) continue to push forward their living wage campaign, which last year saw New Westminster become the first city in Canada to pass a living wage law. The successes of the living wage movements in the U.S and the U.K. have no doubt provided inspiration.
ACORN Canada has also succeeded in getting a bill into the Ontario legislature that would, if passed, put a cap on the outrageous fees charged by money transfer companies like Western Union and MoneyGram on earnings sent by foreign workers in Canada to their families at home.
Lori Theresa Waller is rabble.ca's labour reporter.