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Labour's coming showdown with Harper

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After just six months of a Conservative majority, Canada's labour movement is heading for a showdown with the Harper government. If there were illusions about the ability of the trade union movement to coexist and influence the Conservative government, there are few left today. Attacking unions and reducing their political and economic role has emerged as a central element of the Conservative political strategy. The showdown is coming because social conservatives want a fight with the unions.

Arguably, it's already underway. Harper has intervened in major labour disputes on the side of employers three times in six months. Those actions were followed by the confused, but ominous, ramblings of the federal Labour Minister, Lisa Raitt, who has suggested new Canadian law making "the economy" an essential service, and giving the government the right to intervene in any set of economically important contract negotiations.

Other, less dramatic moves by the Conservatives have reinforced the message that unions have no role in determining economic outcomes. An instructive point was the decision to remove core funding from industry sector councils, perhaps the last major labour market program that recognizes labour, and to redirect labour market funds to business associations. In another slap in the face for unions, the government reversed years of established practice and rejected the CLC's nomination for the position of Employment Insurance Workers' Commissioner, and instead appointed a person not from a CLC union.

Then there was the set up private members' bill - C317 - which sought to force every union in Canada to publish all expenses. The NDP was able to have the legislation struck from the Parliamentary order paper on a procedural decision, but few doubt that it will be back in some form. It was certainly no coincidence that re-elected Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall took time on his election night to suggest that his new majority will press for something similar to C317 in that province.

The purpose of C317 has nothing to do with union expenses, which are already audited and available to all members. By making every detail of unions expenses public the intention is to create a pretense for restricting the rights of unions to engage in politics or social affairs. That is a long held fantasy for the most extreme of the Conservatives, including the PM who cut his political teeth attacking core labour rights. In his days as Director of the National Citizens Coalition, Harper sponsored the infamous Lavigne case before the Supreme Court. That court case and political campaign attempted to undo the "rand formula" and the system of union certification in Canada that has been in place since 1945.

The political attack on labour is certain to sharpen as unions respond to key bargaining challenges, in both the private and public sector. Unions have their back to the walls in bargaining, with employers increasingly demanding two tier regimes for wages, benefits and pensions, and with bargaining settlements on average behind the cost of living over the past year.

But expect the most dramatic fights to be in the public sector where provinces are demanding zero wage increases that will reduce standards of living. The big public sector showdown will likely be in Toronto where the Ford administration believes that it can gut the contracts of municipal workers and contract out jobs. CUPE locals and the Toronto labour movement are preparing now for what could be a huge, intensely political battle.

Two new trends are likely to influence what Canadian labour does now. First, new research is showing an upturn in public attitudes towards labour. The better numbers mirror large gains in popular vote for the NDP federally and in five of six provincial elections in 2011.

There is also improved public support for unions because of the success of the Occupy movement in framing public debate on inequality. In that framework, unions are able to quickly overcome years of negative opinion by acting on behalf of Canada's "middle class"and victims of economic injustice.

Labour's fight back is still developing and taking form, and in many ways still trailing behind other social activists. But there is an understanding across the movement of the need to forge a new social unionism and to champion the Occupy message. Because when the showdown happens, labour will need most of the 99% on its side.


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