Unions are powerless to Harper government’s anti-labour stance

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

Members of  the  Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) recently marched on Parliament Hill donning 'Stephen Harper Hates Me'  T-shirts.

While 'hate' is probably too strong of a word, they might just be on to something.

On Monday, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt will table back-to-work legislation in the House of Commons to end a six-day strike by 4,800 Canadian Pacific workers.

This is hardly the first time the Conservative government has intervened in a high profile labour dispute involving unions.  Much to the chagrin of 'big labour,' the Tories have introduced six other such bills since forming the government in 2006.

To add fuel to the labour fire, the government is also in the midst of  cutting 29,600 public sector union jobs between now and 2015.

Some union leaders have dubbed these events: 'Harper's war on labour.'

If it is a war, the Harper government appears to have the hammer.

Unions, at this point in time, don't have a lot of power in Canada.

In July, shortly after the Harper government ordered Canada Post employees back to work, John Gordon, national president of the PSAC, said his union would respond to any effort to restrict labour rights by staging a four-year campaign to defeat the the Tories.

"[The legislation] tells me there's going to be trouble on the labour front during this four-year term, and I think [the Harper government] has a plan to strip collective bargaining powers of unions," he told Bloomberg Business News.

At the time, Gordon had proposed a summer long public relations campaign against Conservative MPs, but that failed to materialize in any meaningful way.

Earlier this month, PSAC added a 26 cent a month 'tax' to members' union dues to boost the union's war chest for political action campaigns. The fund's success remains to be seen.

A general national strike is always a possibility,  but, in Canada, such an action would put individual workers and their unions at significant risk for engaging in strike action that is not legally mandated or determined.

The only battle the unions can hope to win is the battle of public opinion.

But according to Tasha Kheiriddin, of the National Post, in these tough economic times, even the public believes unions are self-interested and outdated.

"In tough economic times, it's hard to feel a lot of solidarity with our more organized brothers and sisters," she wrote in a recent article.

"This isn't the early 1900s: Most unionized workers are not toiling in collapsing coal mines, or living in leaky company housing, or suffering any more than non-unionized workers are. Yet union jobs command an estimated 7.7 per cent premium, even after controlling for employee and workplace characteristics.

"According to Statistics Canada, in 2010 the average unionized full-time worker pulled in $26.71 per hour, vs. $22.71 for his or her non-union counterparts."

With statistics like those, you're not going to find many union sympathizers anywhere in the country.

(Ottawa Citizen photo)