Conservatives should beware the political rock of anti-union initiatives

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Eighteen months ago, Ontario's Progressive Conservatives planted a very provocative flag in the ground of Canada's labour relations landscape, with a proposal to implement U.S.-style restrictions on unions (including a prohibition on dues check-off, known euphemistically in America as "right to work"). But suddenly and surprisingly, just as debate over the idea was really heating up, Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak abandoned the plan. Speaking to business leaders in Toronto, he pledged to preserve current rules (codified in the famous Rand Formula) if he wins the next election. Conservative strategists hoped their labour policy would be an effective wedge issue in the next campaign. It allowed the Conservatives to capitalize on public enmity about union fat-cats, pensions, and strikes. And it could cleave the electorate neatly between union-haters (owned by the Tories) and union-lovers (split between Liberals and the NDP).

So why did the Conservatives surrender before the election even started? There are several answers to this question, with important implications for parallel strategies by Conservatives in other jurisdictions to push the anti-union button.

Mr. Hudak's party did not help its own cause, with explanations of the issue that were badly formulated, confusing, and contradictory. They provided few specifics, preferring broad rhetoric about ending "forced unionism" and ushering in "worker choice." But in reality there is no forced unionism: workers must give majority approval before a bargaining unit is formed (whether by secret ballot or signing membership cards), and they can decertify their union the same way if they aren't happy with the service. The Rand Formula doesn't make unions compulsory; it merely prevents free riding, whereby workers could get the benefits of a union contract without paying for it. The Conservatives' now-deposed labour critic Randy Hillier muddied the waters further, with wild proposals for combining individual and collective contracts.

Mr. Hudak's declaration of war also sparked a surge of political activism by unions and their members. For example, hundreds of union volunteers helped NDP candidate (and Unifor leader) Wayne Gates prevail over the Conservatives in the Niagara by-election -- one week before Mr. Hudak threw in the right-to-work towel. This union activism could clearly swing the outcome of many key ridings in the GTA, southwestern Ontario, and the north.

Not even employers rallied behind Mr. Hudak's plan to ban the Rand Formula. Indeed, the Toronto business leaders in his audience applauded when he announced his reversal. Corporate Canada has been quietly telling Conservatives at all levels they don't want the disruption and uncertainty that would result from the wholesale dismantling of existing collective bargaining rules.

But the biggest problem for Mr. Hudak's crusade was a deeper sentiment in Canadian public opinion regarding unions and the role they play in society. No matter their warts, unions ultimately reflect their members: typical Canadians just trying to earn a decent income, support their families, and (hopefully) retire with some security, in an economy which rewards the rich and powerful more than ever before. Unions (like wage-earners in general) have been on the defensive for years. Wage gains have been small, strikes are historically rare, and even much-maligned public sector contracts have been rolled back substantially. In such a lopsided context, it's simply impossible to convince most voters that unions are really Public Enemy Number One. And many Canadians innately understand that if the only institutional voice speaking for working class priorities is silenced, then the whole social contract will become even more tattered in the years ahead. Unions, to their credit, effectively emphasized their broader social impacts in their responses to Mr. Hudak.

And therein lies the danger for other Conservatives (including federally) who have been sowing similar political ground. Attempts to delegitimize unions (as with the failed federal Bill C-377, which treated unions almost on par with organized crime) tilt the bargaining field further in employers' favour, and snatch away negotiated benefits (like the health benefits Ottawa is now clawing back from retirees) all appear increasingly mean-spirited. They offend moderate Conservatives (who understand the important institutional role of collective bargaining), anger unions and their members, and reinforce the impression that Conservatives do not speak for average working people.

In short, the effort to blame trade unions as the scapegoat for all economic and fiscal ailments is running out of steam. Mr. Hudak's platform will continue to emphasize other anti-union initiatives, but they will resonate awkwardly in the wake of his Rand Formula flip-flop. And other Conservatives should beware the political rock -- a deep, innate sympathy for institutions which help to share the wealth -- that their Ontario counterparts just drove into.

Jim Stanford is an economist with Unifor. This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: Mark Blevis/flickr

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