A major confrontation is shaping up between progressive elements of Canadian society and anti-union organizations in Canada. This conflict involves a clash over fundamental values, and at stake is the very nature of Canadian society. The values under attack are those held by Canada's labour movement.
These values originated with the "friendly societies" that emerged in Britain in the 18th century. At a time when collective action by workers was illegal, these friendly societies assisted workers and their families struggling with unemployment, illness and injury, premature death and old age. Other worker organizations fought for an extension of voting rights, legislation to establish trade union rights and reforms to improve the conditions of workers and their families, including restrictions on the use of child labour.
These core social-democratic values were inherited by Canada's labour movement. They have been augmented with modern values like women's rights and protection for our natural resources and environment. These are the values and vision that are being challenged by the organizations that march under the right-to-work banner in Canada.
The National Right-to-Work Committee (RTWC) was established in Virginia in 1955 for the express purpose of trying to establish right-to-work laws in individual states. At present, 23 states have such laws, most of them former slave and agrarian states.
In Canada, the main organizations promoting anti-union policies are the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Labour Watch Association (CLWA). The Fraser Institute is a right-wing think-tank that puts a heavy emphasis on anti-union publications and support for anti-union legislation, including right-to-work legislation.
The Canadian Labour Watch Association (CLWA), based in British Columbia, models itself on the U.S. National Right-to-Work Committee. Business-related associations and law firms can take out memberships for $1,000 per year.
All working people would face a more precarious future if we were to allow these organizations to create the society that they want. Unfortunately, that society is already entrenched in the U.S. where 23 right-to-work states allow members to enjoy the benefits of unionism without having to paying union dues. In this way, the proponents of right-to-work laws promote "free riding," as a way of undermining trade unions.
The proponents of right-to-work laws call this "freedom," or the "right to choose." All union members should be, they say, free to choose whether or not to pay union dues, in return for the benefits they get from unions. Indeed not paying union dues is presented as morally superior to paying dues. Sadly, this attitude is looking for a foothold in Canada.
By and large, workers in Canada still respect the majority outcome of a union certification bid and the idea of paying union dues. Nonetheless, right-to-work organizations are determined to persuade governments "free riders" should be able to trump the democratic outcome of certification campaigns. They will insist employers not be required to collect dues even when employees authorize them to, or they will insist on laws prohibiting various forms of union security, including Rand formulas in collective agreements.
It seems we have conditions that constitute a perfect storm for the advocates of right-to-work laws. Mounting pressure from the U.S. is stoking anti-union sentiment in Canada, where the federal government and several provinces are openly hostile to labour. Most susceptible to right-to-work pressures are: Saskatchewan, where the Brad Wall government has taken a strong anti-union position; Ontario, with a minority government facing significant economic problems; Manitoba, where the Conservative opposition has signalled that, should it ever form government, it would go after labour; and the federal jurisdiction, where the government has no time for collective bargaining. These governments are taking advantage of the weak global economy to blame unions, public-sector employees and the unemployed for our woes.
We can't stress enough how important this struggle is to the very future of this country. Anti-union forces also want to do away with employment standards legislation, medicare and most elements of the social safety net. These are all programs that were put in place over the years because of the efforts of working people in this and other countries.
The friendly societies have been largely forgotten, but we would all do well to reflect on their brave deeds and values. The forces they fought against in the 19th century are the same threatening Canadian workers today. If we take heart from their victories, we can withstand this latest assault.
Errol Black is a board member with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He co-authored this piece with fellow board member Jim Silver.