Harper’s new winning strategy – War on Labour

Published: October 28th 2011
Source:
Globe & Mail - by Lawrence Martin
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It’s war on big labour and it’s intended as Stephen Harper’s new winning strategy.
 
When they had a minority government, the Conservatives soft-pedaled labour issues. Now that they have a majority and a labour-backed NDP in opposition, they have moved into attack mode. It’s war on big labour and it’s intended as Stephen Harper’s new winning strategy.

Unlike Brian Mulroney who was a union lawyer, this prime minister is a union loather. He’ll paint the party as being in labour’s back pocket and its leadership contenders as power hungry union stooges out to hike your taxes.
   
 
  Lawrence Martin is the author of 10 books, including six national bestsellers. His most recent, Harperland, was nominated for the Shaughnessy Cohen award. His other works include two volumes on Jean Chrétien, two on Canada-U.S. relations and three books on hockey.

Already there is fear and loathing in Dipperland. Brian Topp and Peggy Nash, two of the strong leadership candidates, have big-union ties in their backgrounds. Well aware of this, Thomas Mulcair, another leading candidate, is trying to distance himself from big labour, sensing there is advantage to be had.

A series of recent anti-labour moves by the Conservatives have been judged as politically popular. Lisa Raitt, the union-bashing Labour Minister, has racked up points in using heavy-handed tactics to prevent strikes by postal workers and Air Canada flight attendants.

In a sure signal of the government’s hard-line intent, she said last week that she was considering changing the Canada Labour Code so that the economy will be defined as an essential service. In that almost any strike could be said to affect the economy, such a move would give the government extraordinary arbitrary powers.

“It would be unprecedented,” said Michael Lynk, a labour law specialist at the University of Western Ontario. “All they have to do is raise the specter of the economy being hurt by a strike to trigger government intervention to end the strike.”

In preventing the strike by Air Canada attendants, Ms. Raitt used tactics that Lynk and other labour law authorities argue were a transparent misuse of labour legislation. Ms. Raitt referred the dispute to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board, which, under the Labour Code, has the power to order that employees continue to supply their services “in order to prevent an immediate and serious danger to the safety or health of the public.” In the attendants’ case, that struck neutral observers as a ridiculous stretch. Flights weren’t about to take off without cabin crews.

Meanwhile a private member`s bill by Conservative MP, Russ Hiebert, who has shown little interest in labour issues before, has labourites in an uproar. It would require greater financial disclosure by unions. Union officials like Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti say unions already meet high standards of disclosure and that the Conservatives are using bully tactics to smear anyone who disagrees with them.

In addition to the other moves, the Conservatives sought to embarrass the NDP on their labour ties by alleging in a letter to Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand that the party contravened election financing laws by accepting paid advertising from unions at its June convention. Mayrand declined to rule on the complaint.

There’s no doubt Harper sees union ties as an Achilles’ heel of his major opposition party. “Harper is trying to take some of the mud that the unions are wearing in terms of public opinion and make it stick to the NDP,” said Jim Stanford, economist for the Canadian Autoworkers Union. “There is a very strategic effort by Harper to paint the NDP and whoever is next leader as being in the pockets of big labour.”

The strength of unions has declined significantly over the years. They accounted for 38 percent of the Canadian work force in the 1980s, but only about 30 percent now. Big labour supporters argue that just as unions have declined so has the middle class and so has the gap between rich and poor increased. It was the unions that were a major force in creating middle class prosperity, they say.

Labour movement supporters take encouragement from the Occupy Wall Street movement and the recent focus on income inequality arising from the global recession. But Conservatives are confident and probably rightly so that they can win the battle of public opinion in taking on unions.

For Stephen Harper, the anti-labour stance is a great fit. It suits his philosophy and it can work well politically.

Jin Stanford is aware of the challenge. “This is where me and my brothers and sisters in this thing called labour have to get a lot more effective,” he said. “More effective at explaining and positioning ourselves as the voice of social justice rather than some kind of vested interest group.”