John Baglow

Ontario labour under a conservative lens [2]

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[…cont’d]

Andrew Coyne concedes that tough-talking Jimmy Hazel of the Toronto Maintenance and Construction Skilled Trades Council may not be typical of the labour movement. But, to sharpen the caricature, he quotes only part of what Hazel had to say about on-the-face-of-it-exorbitant costs for labour billed to the Toronto and District School Board, with whom the Council has a negotiated contract. Hazel’s subsequent climb-down is of no rhetorical help, so it isn’t mentioned.

“See, that’s the problem with unions,” would be a good summary of Coyne’s Postmedia opinion piece. Because he no sooner calls the partially-quoted Hazel an “extreme example” than he proceeds to generalize from it anyway:

[I]t illustrates a more general principle. Unions are unique among private organizations in Canada in that they have been assigned what amounts to the power to tax: to collect dues, via the usual paycheque deductions, not only from their own members, but also those who exercise their legal right not to join the union, who are nevertheless required to pay the same dues as if they had — an arrangement known in Canada as “the Rand formula.”

There was a bit of a hop, skip and jump right there, but if Rand is now the topic of debate, then so let it be.

Only 16% of the private sector, Coyne reminds us, is presently unionized; but in the public sector, the figure is 70%. That sets up two inviting targets: unions and the public service. Coyne sets about firing his rhetorical big guns:

[Public service] unions have the power not only to tax their members, but—thanks to the state’s monopoly in the provision of many public services—the taxpayers as well. So Hazel is right: he really doesn’t need to f—ing prove anything to anybody.

Hazel represents skilled tradespeople who work for the Toronto and District School Board. There now exists one contract with the TDSB, not the former 14, and non-union contractors pay dues to the Council, in return for which they get union scale and union representation. He has plenty to prove, in fact—to his members every day, and to the employer with whom he and his Council negotiate—but very little to prove to hostile journalists bent upon reinforcing hoary old stereotypes. Nevertheless, as I noted in the first portion of this two-part post, there was considerably more to his addressing the issue of exorbitant job costs than a foul-mouthed comment or two.

Nevertheless, Hazel, as Coyne would readily admit, is not the real issue. Back, then, to that uniquely Canadian compromise, the Rand formula. Coyne tells us that it is “little short of astonishing” that a “major political party,” by which he means, I suppose, the near-moribund PC party of Ontario, would go after it.

I’m surprised by his surprise. Is he unaware of the numerous recent anti-labour moves of the federal Conservative government—or of the fact that the Conservative Party of Canada committed itself to abolishing the formula at its 2008 Winnipeg convention?

Anti-unionism is, after all, a core part of the pro-business conservative creed. Mike Harris once passed unbalanced anti-union legislation that placed any union official or staff member making over $100K per year on a public list. Corporations were not subject to anything similar, although shareholders might well have been interested. The same law forced every unionized workplace to display the procedure for decertification; but no such rule was adopted for the display of certification procedures in non-union shops.

There’s transparency for you.

In any case, Coyne is ecstatic about Mini-Me’s move:

The party’s white paper on “Flexible Labour Markets” proposes a raft of reforms to the province’s labour laws that would, taken together, give Ontario the freest workplaces in the country.

Here’s the White Paper, a horrendous compendium of every conceivable anti-union notion, disingenuously addressing problems that don’t even exist, as here:

Amend legislation so that unions must provide full and transparent disclosure of their revenues and how they spend their funds.

Newsflash, Tim and Andrew: they already do. Members wouldn’t have it any other way. Financial statements are presented at union conventions, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that the grilling is arduous. The myth that union leadership is unaccountable and spends the members’ dues on whatever it feels like is alive and well in Hudak’s predatory little screed. But, Andrew—you do know better, don’t you?

Well, I’m not sure at this point.

Amid a number of measures—outside supervision of certification votes, a leaner mandate for the Ontario Labour Relations Board, the right to opt out of the provincial workers’ compensation system in favour of private insurance —two stand out. The party would abolish the closed shop in public tendering, opening the bidding to all contractors, union and non-union alike. More radically still, it would abolish the Rand formula. Workers would no longer be required, either in law or in collective agreements, to pay dues to an organization they chose not to belong to.

Is Coyne seriously supporting the dismantling of another historic compromise, the workers’ compensation regime? Given the fact that it has, in the past, acted as an insurance scheme for the bosses—employees injured on the job may not sue a negligent employer and must content themselves with the relatively modest payments that WSIB doles out—he might want to think that one over. But the Rand formula, in any case, remains his central concern, evidently a pet peeve:

Whether or not the Rand formula is a formal violation of the Charter right of free association, it has always struck me as unjust. I know the argument: that if workers were not required to pay dues, they could “free ride” on union-negotiated benefits. But unions, I say again, are private organizations. It is not the government’s obligation to enforce cartel discipline on their behalf, at the forced expense of individuals who may well dispute that their activities are to their net benefit.

Readers may judge for themselves whether Coyne has managed to rebut the “free-rider” argument here. I’m afraid I can see only bobbing and weaving. Unless individuals are willing to live with the average non-union package of wages and benefits in their region and do without representation when they get into trouble, they should be prepared to pay the cost of obtaining a union contract and union services. The Right is constantly accusing progressives of wanting something for nothing, but is here incongruously demanding that unions should have to carry workplace deadbeats around on their backs.

Far from being a “formal violation of the Charter,” as Coyne suggests, the formula has been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada as consistent with the Charter, starting with the watershed Lavigne decision in 1991. Collective bargaining itself is a recognized and legitimate part of the juridical landscape, even with the backward step the SCC took in Fraser last year. Dismantling an entire evolved framework of labour relations for transparently ideological motives is not likely to cut much ice with the Court.

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that the Rand formula is unproblematic from a labour point of view. It can encourage a kind of complacency on the part of union leaders, leading to an apathetic rank-and-file ill-equipped to fight back effectively against governments and employers bent on destroying their unions. It also enmeshes unions in a labour-relations regime fundamentally tilted in favour of employers and governments. The power of the latter, certainly in the absence of anti-scab legislation, is clearly superior.

But if the Rand formula disappears, alternative measures giving unions workplace rights and providing unrepresented workers easy access to unionization will not spontaneously arise from its ashes. The New Zealand experience (176ff) is instructive in this regard, and its recent history makes grim reading.

The Hudak initiative is not only about Rand, and it’s not taking place in a vacuum. Labour is presently under sustained attack on all fronts by the Harper government. Hard-won labour rights are being stripped away. Hudak’s move is part of a perfectly obvious and concerted strategy to achieve nothing less than the abolition of collective bargaining in Canada. And organized labour will have to change its orientation, its structures and its modus operandi if it expects to survive.

More: Labour economist Jim Stanford rebuts Coyne.

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This page contains a single entry by John Baglow published on June 28, 2012 10:00 PM.

Ontario labour under a conservative lens [1] was the previous entry in this blog.

The Harperverse: It's Not Much Like Here is the next entry in this blog.

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