Harper seems determined to turn Canada into anti-union paradise

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Hundreds of shivering factory workers locked out of their plant by manufacturing giant Caterpillar in London, Ont., might well draw some warm comfort from -- of all things -- the sayings of Newt Gingrich.

Of course, the conservative Republican presidential contender is no friend of labour or social justice; he recently proposed that poor children be schooled in the ways of free enterprise by being hired to clean school washrooms.

Nonetheless, Gingrich, one of the stars of the Republican freak show, is desperate to defeat front-runner Mitt Romney. With the mitts off, Gingrich is denouncing Romney's background as a Wall Street corporate raider, accusing him of practising a form of capitalism where "you basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers."

The multi-millionaire Romney showed his empathy for working people by noting, in a discussion about private health care, that "I like being able to fire people who provide services" and insisting that comments about the rich having too much money should be confined to "quiet rooms."

All this has unleashed an unexpected and fierce debate about the brutality of unbridled capitalism -- a debate the Republican establishment is scrambling to sweep back into the quiet rooms as quickly as possible.

Here in Canada, Stephen Harper has tried to head off a similar debate, dismissing the relevance of Occupy Wall Street on the grounds that "we have a very different situation here than the United States."

In fact, under the Harper government, the slightly milder Canadian version of capitalism is rapidly giving way to a more virulent U.S.-style variant, with even greater wealth concentration and fewer protections for working people.

Indeed, Gingrich's depiction of a capitalism where "you basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers" seems like a perfect description of what's going on in London, where the highly profitable U.S.-owned Caterpillar is demanding its Canadian workforce accept a 50-per-cent wage cut. When the workers declined this take-it-or-leave-it offer, they were locked out on New Year's Eve.

If this isn't ruthless, heartless capitalism -- enough to make even Newt's blood boil -- it's hard to imagine what is. Yet, as the 500 London workers have bundled up in the cold, the Harper government refuses to get involved, sitting silently on the sidelines as Caterpillar brings its notorious anti-union fervour to Canada.

In fact, the Harper government is involved, having played a key role in bringing about this disaster for the London workers by approving the sale of the company, Electro-Motive Diesel, to foreign-owned Caterpillar in 2010, after supposedly investigating whether the deal was in Canada's interests.

The Canadian Auto Workers, which represents the locked out workers, believes Caterpillar purchased the plant with the intention of gaining technology and market share and then moving operations south.

The Harper government also approved a foreign takeover by another notorious union-busting company, mining giant Rio Tinto, which has now locked out 800 workers in Alma, Que.

The Canadian Labour Congress is demanding that Ottawa strengthen its foreign takeover laws to make the secretive review process more open, with public hearings in affected communities and publication of the conditions imposed -- if any -- on foreign owners.

Ironically, the Harper government has complained forcefully about "foreign" interference from outside environmentalists protesting a proposed pipeline across the Rockies. But when it comes to foreign companies stripping Canadian workers of half their wages and then moving operations out of the country, the government hasn't a negative word to say.

Harper is of course staunchly pro-capitalist, and has aggressively lowered corporate tax rates, while refusing to link lower taxes to investment or job creation.

But his anti-union stance, evident in disputes at Air Canada and the post office last summer, has been particularly provocative. He seems determined to turn Canada into an anti-union paradise -- prompting the Ontario Federation of Labour to call for a mass rally at Victoria Park in London, Ont., this Saturday.

As the PM gears up for his coming battle against federal public sector unions, he will no doubt draw inspiration from Mitt Romney's stirring words: "I like to be able to fire people who provide services."

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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