Nine years of Harper, nine years of attacks on unions

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Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister for almost a decade. In that time, the system of protections that have been put in place by decades of advocacy by labour organizations and unions has been partly dismantled.

"This government has been clear in its dislike of unions and collective bargaining," said Angella MacEwan, Senior Economist with the Canadian Labour Congress. "There has been no respect for the important role unions play in the workplace and in civil society."

The attacks have been extremely strategic. Ground Zero for these attacks has been the House of Commons, where piece after piece of legislation has taken aim at unions and collective bargaining.

Bill C-60 was the omnibus budget bill that passed in 2013. Buried in this bill is a provision that allows for the Treasury Board to direct collective bargaining for 48 Crown corporations.

"Bill 60 … essentially gives [the] Treasury Board unfettered authority to interfere in bargaining with Crown Corporations, removing effective control from the parties most directly affected," said Chris Aylward, Public Service Alliance of Canada National Executive Vice President in a statement. "This is not a recipe for healthy labour relations."

More broad in its attack on unions, Bill C-377 was a private member's bill that was pushed by government forces to eventually pass this past July.

C-377 requires unions to publicly account for every dime spent in a given year, expensive for both unions and for Canada Revenue Agency. Financial information, union federations and labour organizations -- including the personal information of union members -- would be publicly available.

Then, there was "An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code, the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act and the Public Service Labour Relations Act," passed this past April and which fundamentally changes the process of forming unions in the federally-regulated industries by eliminating card check certification.

The attacks don't stop there. Harper’s government has made Employment Insurance less accessible, implemented tax cuts that decrease funding to public services, prevented the expansion of the Canadian Pension Plan, failed to enforce the Canada Health Accord, delayed access to Old Age Security pension, changed the defined benefit pension plans for many workers in Crown corporations and started to eliminate door to door mail delivery. His government has also made "economic deals that protect corporations' rights over workers rights or environmental concerns," added Angella MacEwan.

Relying on Back-to-Work legislation became a preferred negotiation tactic under Harper's tenure, too. Former Labour Minister and Member of Parliament for Halton Lisa Raitt justified back-to-work legislation by arguing that workers for Canada Post and Air Canada perform nearly essential services. She went so far as to suggest that the economy itself is an essential service, a concept that plainly prioritizes profit over workers’ rights and that could put labour negotiations in those industries at risk.

Unionized workers are hardly the only community targeted by Harper's attacks. Workers who work through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program have been placed at the mercy of an oppressive and exploitative migrant labour initiative.

The program leaves workers vulnerable to abuse from employers and without access to the support and benefits of labour organizations or Canadian public services.

"The government and the employer organizations will always argue and say that migrant workers have the same rights on paper as Canadian workers. This is not true," said Chris Ramsaroop, of Justice for Migrant Workers, "because migrant workers can be deported or they can lose their temporary work status on a whim or at a moment's notice, it denies them basic benefits."

"Immigration laws are being used to pit working class people against one another," continued Ramsaroop. "We should not consider migrant workers threats to our jobs. Our challenge as working people is to be against federal laws that divide us."

"[W]e're under attack, both federally and in some provinces and have been for the last couple of years," said Mark Hennessy, Director of Political Action for the United Food and Commercial Workers. "I wouldn’t say we're in our strongest position, but I think we're becoming stronger because of these attacks. I think we're becoming more coordinated and strategic as a labour movement and we're finding ourselves working together quite a bit more."

What is needed now is leadership that will work with labour to reverse the changes Harper has made to break down the labour movement, and build it back up -- taller and stronger than ever.

Haseena Manek is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter here.

This piece was originally published at, and is reprinted here with permission.

For more labour coverage, please visit the labour issues page.

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