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Right to work in Canada?

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Yesterday the Michigan legislature passed “right-to-work” legislation that would ban unions from collecting dues from all those covered by union contracts via paycheck deductions. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has said he intends to sign the bill into law. Michigan will now join 23 other states in America that have similar anti-union laws. The psychological blow of Michigan, a union stronghold, passing right-to-work will have on the U.S. labour movement can’t be overstated. The right-to-work (for less) has now moved right next door to Ontario. So, it is high time we start talking about what this means for workers in Canada. 

Obviously, the more that unions and workers are beaten back in the United States, the worse it is for Canadian workers. One need only look at Electro-Motive Diesel jobs being moved from London down to Indiana earlier this year after the state passed similar right-to-work legislation.

However, before we get too doom and gloom, I think we need to have a more sober analysis. Canada is not the United States after all. We have a different array of social forces and conditions that makes the implementation of similar legislation much harder.

The first is that the existence of the NDP makes it much more difficult for a total rightward political discourse to occur. Yes, I know the NDP has drifted right, but its political base is still largely working-class. The point is that without the NDP the two other major parties would surely pull the political agenda heavily rightward.

The second point here is that in Canada we have a much higher rate of unionization. Union density in Canada is around 30 per cent whereas in the United States it is under 12 per cent. If you were to just look at the private sector, the respective numbers fall to about 15 percent in Canada and less than seven percent in America. Unions in Canada have more members, more money and more political clout.

The third reason is that the union movement has entrenched certain social gains that make a direct attack harder to win. The right-wing populist line of smaller government mixed with an Ayn Randesque individual entrepreneurial spirit does not have the same reach in Canada. Big government is not hated in the same way; social programs and services in Canada are popular (though even this can’t ensure their safety from cuts). Right-wing populism does have a base in Canada, but it is narrower than in the U.S.

Just look at the way the Harper government has had to operate. Even with a majority the Conservatives are still pursuing a back door strategy of cuts and confrontations (which, in my mind, is much more dangerous). Yes, they have a far-right agenda, but they are pursuing it with a concerted political calculation of trying to avoid attacking things head on. 

Now for the bad news: it looks like the situation in Ontario is shifting in a way that could provide the right for an opening to push for some sort of right-to-work legislation. The Liberals passed the draconian Bill 115 that hinders teachers’ collective bargaining rights. They also wanted to pass another bill that would have curbed most Ontario public-sector workers’ collective bargaining rights (by imposing wage freezes and giving the government a final say over all contracts). They were unable to move these proposals through Queen’s Park because they were not harsh enough for Tim Hudak’s Conservatives.

Hudak has openly called for the adoption of some sort of right-to-work law to supposedly help solve the provincial deficit. This is exactly how it was framed in the last two states to pass right-to-work legislation: Indiana and Michigan. Michigan, it must be remembered, has a union density rate of 18 per cent—one of the highest in the country.

So I thought I would close with just a couple of remarks about the meaning of right-to-work. I know some of you may think, “Well maybe right-to-work will make it easier to build an effective and progressive workers’ movement, because it will keep unions honest, reform the bureaucratic structures, and move power back down to the rank and file.”

In my opinion, this “fewer but better” outlook is flawed. Yes, it would be nice to wipe the slate clean and cast off the burdensome deadwood of useless labour bureaucrats. While all of that does sound satisfying, when we examine the concrete conditions under which this would take place, the end result would be a negative for workers. I think the more power rank-and-file workers have, and the less they are constrained by legality, the better.

However, that only makes sense if the working class is radicalized, organized and in the ascendancy. The labour left by and large is weak, unorganized and unable to institute sufficient militancy to beat back concessions let alone a more emboldened set of employers. It is not like workers in right-to-work states in the United States have become more militant and radicalized. In fact it has been the opposite.

We need to understand right-to-work legislation not as battle over principles or rights. Rather, we should understand it as a means or a tactic in a class struggle. Thus, when we examine and discuss right-to-work, how to battle it and how we may have to operate around it, we should forgo the facile argument about labour rights and get down with the messy politics of class strategy. 

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