Canadian workers' rights: It's a question of fairness

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In late March, I spent a few days with some other retirees at a political action conference in Toronto. We were among close to 1,500 labour activists and leaders from across Canada who spent the weekend talking about the attacks on working families in Canada and what we can do about them. Why, you ask, would retirees be interested in this? Well, when we were young our parents did not have many of the rights and benefits Canadian workers enjoy today. And during our working lives, we fought hard and long with our unions for the wages and benefits workers enjoy today, a fair share of the richness of Canada. Wages and benefits that allowed us to buy a house, take an occasional vacation, put our kids through college and university, and set aside something for retirement. And, as retirees, we are not about to just sit by and see our children and grandchildren lose what we fought for.

Many of the gains retired union activists helped achieve at the bargaining table became codified in statute and spread to non-union workers, like 40-hour work weeks, overtime, weekends off, paid vacations, the right to refuse unsafe work, maternity leave and paternity leave, freedom from discrimination, common decency and workplaces free from harassment.

Those of us who were active in the labour movement in Ontario in the late '70s and early '80s remember that the Conservatives under the leadership of Bill Davis amended the Ontario Labour Relations Act to allow, in statute, that if the union requested during bargaining that union dues be deducted, then the employer had to comply. The legislation was the result of protracted management-labour disputes over union security clauses in workplaces, including Radio Shack, Irwin Toys, Canadian Gypsum, Fleck Manufacturing and others.

Last June, Tim Hudak, the leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party, released a "white paper," entitled "Paths to Prosperity: Labour Flexibility." Now, who would be opposed to new paths to prosperity? Right? Wrong! Buried in the details of his plan are proposals to outlaw compulsory union membership, to make the payment of union dues voluntary in unionized workplaces, and to make unions disclose how much they spend on political activities. At the same time, they require the unions to represent all workers in an enterprise regardless of whether or not the workers pay union dues.

There are reports that there will be so-called private members' bills from the Harper Conservatives in Ottawa that federally regulated workers should face similar legislation. It is a continuation of the Harper Conservatives' attack on unions and their members.

Late last year, the Harper Conservatives used their majority in Parliament to force through a private member's bill, C-377, which amends the Income Tax Act so that unions have to publicly disclose expenditures over $5,000 and employees' salaries and benefit costs etc., under the guise of "public transparency" because union members get to write off their union dues on income tax -- while at the same time excluding other associations from the same onerous requirements, such as doctors, dentists and lawyers, who enjoy the same write-off of dues and fees from income tax.

These Canadian conservative ideas are not new. They have been tried south of the border in the United States. In a recently released report by the Centre for American Progress, entitled Michigan 'Right-to-Work' Bill is the Wrong Economics for the Middle Class, authors Adam S. Hersh, Heather Boushey and David Madland state:

"Unions support a strong middle class and, increasingly, economists are finding evidence that a strong middle class is not only good for the workers and their families who directly benefit, but for the economy overall. We know that if workers cannot afford the basics, ultimately the overall economy suffers along with these individuals."

They conclude that:

"This so-called right to work legislation will make it harder for unions to do their job; improving wages and working conditions. That, in turn, will push our economy toward more weakening of the middle class, which will, in the end, lower our nation's economic competitiveness."

J.S. Woodsworth (1874-1942), a pioneer in the Canadian social democratic movement, said it best: "What we desire for ourselves, we desire for all."

As retirees, we desire fairness for our children and our grandchildren. They too deserve a fair share of the richness of Canada.

Doug Macpherson is the National Coordinator for the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) and a vice president of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC).

Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities. CURC acts as an advocacy organization to ensure that the concerns of union retirees and senior citizens are heard throughout Canada.

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