Throne speech has much to offer the labour movement if promises come through, experts say

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Photo of this week's speech from the throne. Image: Justin Trudeau/Facebook

In this week's speech from the throne, a new slogan seems to have been adopted by Justin Trudeau's government: "build back better" was used five times. In the prime minister's address to the nation Wednesday evening, he invoked it once more.

Notably, Unifor's plan for economic recovery, which the union released in late June, was packaged and promoted under that same slogan.

Neither Unifor nor the Trudeau government have been the only ones to adopt that phrase when speaking about a post-pandemic economic recovery -- it's been used by the United Nations and the OECD, and even Joe Biden's economic recovery plan for the United States runs under a similar banner.

But it does suggest alignment between this government's economic recovery plan and many of the demands of the Canadian labour movement.

Larry Savage, a labour studies professor at Brock University, said he saw many similarities between the promises made in the throne speech and the labour movement's key priorities as laid out by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) or in Unifor's "Build Back Better" platform, for instance.

Savage specifically noted the rejection of austerity as an economic strategy; support for a national childcare program; the introduction of national standards for long-term care; investments in training and green infrastructure; measures to address systemic racism; EI reform; and, the extension of the wage subsidy as all being wins for the labour movement -- should these promises actually come to fruition.

The CLC itself seems optimistic about the priorities laid out in the throne speech, commending the government for "listening to the concerns of workers and their families" in a Wednesday press release.

Unifor similarly expressed its satisfaction with the government's plans, stating they had long advocated for many of the government's new priorities, including EI reform, increased spending on training for workers, and new infrastructure spending.

Another big win for Unifor was the announcement of a new electric vehicles strategy, something Unifor president Jerry Dias had been lobbying for as a means of reinvigorating the automotive industry in Canada. This strategy is complementary to Unifor's recent deal with Ford Motor Co.: a three-year agreement that includes $2 billion in investment to set Canada up for the mass production of electric vehicles and batteries.

The alignment of many government promises with labour movement goals is likely an indication that the labour movement has managed to win the ear of the Liberal government, said economist Jim Stanford.

Stanford, who is also the director of the Centre for Future Work, said he thought unions have been "hugely influential" in the direction the government is taking, both in terms of their historical advocacy and their more recent lobbying efforts on an inclusive and socially minded economic recovery.

"CLC and Unifor were in there in a flexible and largely non-partisan way. In the context of a Liberal minority government, you can go in and win things, but only if you’re fighting on the issues and not fighting on the party banner ... That's the key to unions having a credible and influential political presence," said Stanford.

Savage agreed that unions have developed good working relationships with the Liberal government and have been careful not to restrict themselves to an exclusive relationship with the NDP.

"I think it will be incredibly difficult for Jagmeet Singh to justify defeating the government over this throne speech. I think union leaders will be lobbying the NDP to prop up the government," he said.

Savage said the labour movement will now need to kick into gear to ensure the government delivers on its promises in a tangible way.

"The devil's in the details. Liberal governments have promised policies like childcare and EI reform in the past and failed to deliver," he said.

Marc Lee, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said one of the things that struck him as most beneficial for the Canadian economy and its workers was the proposed national child care program.

"That has the potential to be something serious and if the government is serious about the challenges of the time, particularly women and having access to the labour market, you can't duck this one," he said.

But Lee remains skeptical. Without a budget, he said, there's no way of knowing whether these programs will manifest into something meaningful.

Rejecting austerity measures makes good economic sense: economists 

In Trudeau's address to the nation Wednesday evening, he responded to concerns that his Conservative opposition have been stoking over unchecked government spending.

In the long run, spending less now would end up costing more later, reasoned Trudeau. It would also mean the economic burden would fall to Canadians rather than the government.

"While we're dealing with this pandemic, I don't want you or your parent or your friend to take on debt that your government can better shoulder. So yes, in the short term, we'll keep investing," he said.

Lee and Stanford agreed with this position.

"The Bank of Canada is creating most of the money," said Stanford. "Obviously deficits of that size can't carry on forever but there's no immediate limit," he added. 

Both economists as well as Trudeau pointed out that current low interest rates allow for the government to borrow money more readily, and the Bank of Canada's support of the spending means the country won't end up with foreign debt.

The best way forward, they said, is by supporting the economy through this crisis, rather than hanging workers out to dry through austerity measures.

"You're in a pretty serious recession due to COVID-19. Do you want to go into a depression?" said Lee.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]

Image: Justin Trudeau/Facebook

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