Get ready for Canada-bashing (again)

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Like many Canadians, the debate over President Barack Obama's health-care reforms left me both bemused and annoyed. Bemused that our neighbours have such difficulty taking even a timid step toward healthy common sense. But annoyed that Canada's good name was caught in the crossfire.

Canadians are healthier, and live longer, than Americans -- and we pay considerably less for the privilege. So it rankles to see private health lobbyists taking such far-fetched potshots at our cheaper, fairer system.

With a new deal to move a compromise plan through the Senate, it looks like the end is in sight for this phase of America's health-care debate. But keep your guard up, Canada, because we're about to get collectively dragged through the U.S. political mud again. This time, the topic is labour law.

After fixing health care, Mr. Obama's next big promise to his social and union supporters was to right the lopsided U.S. labour relations system. Collective bargaining is weaker in America than in any other developed country. Unionization has been battered for decades by sophisticated (often illegal) employer campaigns, so-called right-to-work laws and a Labour Board that stood by while unions were creamed. Mr. Obama's proposed Employee Free Choice Act would arrest, and perhaps modestly reverse, this long decline in collective bargaining. New laws would enhance workers' shots at forming a union, and their chances of getting a first contract once they have one.

Free-market economists used to praise America's rugged labour market as a "model" of competition and deregulation. But that myth is now dead and buried: The U.S. is a high-unemployment jurisdiction, despite its dog-eat-dog inequality. Adjusted for common statistical concepts, Canada's unemployment rate is more than two percentage points lower than America's -- and we created new jobs twice as fast over the past decade.

So having Americans criticize Canada's labour market makes as much sense as them denouncing Canadian medicare. But that's exactly what U.S. employer lobbyists are gearing up to do. Canada's labour laws will be right in the crosshairs as the American debate heats up.

One hired consultant, for example, cited Canadian data to argue that Mr. Obama's reforms would increase U.S. unemployment by five million people in one year. This study's methodology was bizarre and inconsistent; it wouldn't pass muster in an elementary statistics course. But its findings are repeated ad nauseam by business lobbyists and anti-union editorialists, pulling out all the stops to keep American unions on the defensive.

And like with health care, U.S. lobbyists can always find a dissident Canadian to endorse their Canada-bashing. Remember Shona Holmes, star of America's anti-medicare TV ads? She claimed she was denied timely treatment for a life-threatening brain tumour, fleeing to the U.S. for expensive treatment (subsequently billed to Ontario's health insurance plan). The key facts were in question -- but in the WWF-style brawling that passes for U.S. policy debate, that hardly mattered.

In the labour law debate, the quislings include the Fraser Institute (which urges America to "steer clear" of anything that strengthens unions) and the Bank of Montreal (which dispatched lobbyists to Washington to warn of the dangers of Canadian-style labour laws). The Fraser Institute line was predictable. But the Bank of Montreal's Canada-bashing was offensive. After all, this corporation raked in $20-billion profit over the past decade (courtesy of Canadian consumers and its virtually union-free work force) and, as gravy, received massive government financial assistance this year. They must have dug deep to find anything at all negative to say about Canada -- but I guess corporate solidarity trumps national loyalty every time.

To shed some light on the debate, more than 100 Canadian labour market scholars issued a statement affirming the effectiveness of Canadian labour relations. They are backed by a new collection of academic articles (to which I contributed), published by York University's Centre for Research on Work and Society, that, in reviewing the experience of Canada's labour laws, debunk the notion that unionization has boosted Canadian unemployment. (In fact, Canadian data show no connection at all between unionization and unemployment.)

Canada's already sizable employment advantage over our neighbours will certainly widen in coming months. Will that slow down the U.S. business lobby's denunciations of Canada? Don't count on it. The facts seldom get in the way of a good smear campaign.

Jim Stanford is an economist with the CAW.

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