Some believe the Public Service Alliance of Canada's "Stephen Harper Hates Me" campaign slogan is over the top. But it may actually be too limited in scope. Harper's bunch hasn't just targeted those employed in the public service, but every Canadian whose pay and work conditions interferes with the corporate world's drive for ever more profit.
In the latest example of their 'whatever business wants' attitude, the Conservatives are unwilling to lift a finger in support of 1000 workers recently locked out by U.S. Steel in Nanticoke, on the north shore of Lake Erie. This is the third time since the U.S.-based company bought Stelco in 2007 that it has locked out its Canadian workforce and the previous lockout in Nanticoke lasted eight months.
In December 2011 the Conservatives dropped a court case to force U.S. Steel to live up to the jobs and production promises it made to get approval to buy Stelco under the Investment Canada Act. Even though multiple court rulings, including from the Supreme Court, said the government had a legitimate case against U.S. Steel, the federal government dropped its case in exchange for new investments and a promise to keep operating the Canadian plant until 2015.
The lockout flies in the face of the company's promise, yet when Hamilton NDP MP Wayne Marston brought the lockout up in the House of Commons last Monday -- asking the industry minister, "When will the Conservatives stop selling out our manufacturing sector and enforce the investment Canada Act?" -- Christian Paradis dismissed the question as opposition "demagogy."
U.S. Steel's bullying efforts follow on the heels of Caterpillar's closure of an Electro-Motive facility in London, Ontario. At the start of last year the US based company demanded the plant's workers accept 50 per cent pay cuts and when they refused Caterpillar locked them out for a month. Then the company moved the plant to Indiana and 460 workers in London lost their jobs.
Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford aptly summarized Caterpillar's action, "They showed up uninvited in 2010, took over a long-standing productive profitable plant, demanded money (from workers and government alike), then left -- leaving behind a shuttered plant and a shattered community."
If the Conservatives wanted to protect workers from these corporate attacks they easily could. But their unwillingness to defend Canadian workers from large multinationals is only the tip of the iceberg in their anti-worker agenda.
In a flagrant attempt to suppress Canadian workers' wages and conditions, the Conservatives greatly expanded the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). They made it easier for companies to apply for visas and allowed employers to pay foreign workers 15 per cent less than the going rate for Canadian workers in the field. The doubling in size of the TFWP since the Conservatives took office recently blew up in the face of the government when RBC was caught using the program to facilitate the offshoring of some IT jobs. Last week the Conservatives made some changes to tighten up the TFWP but they won't fundamentally alter the program.
In their 2012 omnibus budget the Conservative curtailed Employment Insurance benefits by changing the definition of suitable employment and reasonable job search to include ever wider classifications and geographical distances. They've also ramped up the monitoring of recipients and forced some EI beneficiaries to take lower paying jobs. By making the unemployed even less secure, these changes put downward pressure on wages and conditions for all Canadians who work for a living.
Another element of the government's low-wage strategy has been to intervene in labour negotiations on behalf of employers. Harper's Conservatives have used back-to-work legislation to end labour disputes five times in two years (Air Canada in June 2011, September 2011 and March 2012, Canada Post in June 2011 and Canadian Pacific in May 2012). Last month the government's move to restrict Canada Post workers' right to strike was condemned by the International Labour Organization.
Even the Conservatives move to slash tens of thousands of public service jobs is, at least in part, a backdoor bid to drive down all working people's wages. With unionization rates four times higher than the private sector, government-run services typically pay workers somewhat better (especially for those in lower status positions such as clerical workers and cleaners). To the chagrin of many employers the wages and benefits garnered by public sector workers provide a point of comparison for similar private sector jobs, which is why the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has repeatedly called on the government to freeze public sector pay.
In last week's budget implementation bill the Conservatives gave cabinet extraordinary powers to oversee collective bargaining at Crown corporations. Treasury Board president Tony Clement stated that the goal of this move is to better "align" these workers' wages and benefits with those in the private sector.
Allowing the Treasury Board to appoint a representative to Crown Corporation labour negotiations "is part of a broader issue, which is aligning the public-service compensation and benefits to private-sector norms and expectations," Clement said. In other words, the government wants to worsen conditions in the public sector so these workers no longer put upwards pressure on pay and benefits in the private sector.
Some might say the Conservatives' various moves to drive down wages and benefits suggest a certain hatred for Canadian workers. But that would be unfair. They just like their corporate friends better.
Dave Coles is National President of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP).
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