Monday, December 17, 2012

War on unions: right-to-work, Harper, Hudak

Protesters unhappy with Michigan's right-to-work legislation gathered outside of the state capitol building on Dec. 11, 2012. Last week Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law bills that ban mandatory union membership, making Michigan the nation's 24th right-to-work state. This kind of union bashing could be coming to Ontario

All three were factors in Michigan this past week as Republican legislators and Gov. Rick Snyder hastily passed a set of laws designed to strip unions of money and members. And the same thing could happen here without determined resistance from Canadians loath to see the society they’ve built turned into a warren of low-wage ghettoes.

All told, this has been a remarkably bad week for labour. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives passed legislation forcing unions to disclose key aspects of their finances, including information on salaries, expenditures and time spent on political activities. This information is to be passed to the Canada Revenue Agency and then published.

There’s merit in shedding more light on union activities, since union dues are tax-deductible, but this new law unfairly singles out labour for extra regulation. Other tax-deductible professional dues, such as law society and medical association fees, are not covered by any such rules. All should be treated on an equal footing.

Far worse is what happened in Michigan. In just five days, the state’s Senate, House and governor passed right-to-work measures allowing employees in unionized workplaces to reject union membership and refuse to pay dues. Billed as promoting freedom of choice, its effect is to sap labour’s strength and drive down wages. People are free to work all right — for longer hours, fewer benefits and less pay.

That this would happen in Michigan, of all places, underscores the challenge facing labour. This is the state where the once-mighty United Auto Workers union was born in 1935 — the organization from which our own Canadian Auto Workers sprouted. Labour won landmark victories here, with working people making solid gains that lifted them into the middle class.

Now history is flowing the other way. And in Ontario, no one’s smile is likely broader than Tim Hudak’s. The Progressive Conservative leader proposes to make Ontario a right-to-work jurisdiction as well. With Michigan going this route, it’s become easier for Hudak to sell his brand of union-bashing. 

he existing Rand formula has served this province well. Named after Ivan Rand, the Supreme Court justice who imposed it in a 1946 strike-ending arbitration, it requires everyone covered by a union contract to pay dues, whether or not they want to. That’s only fair because all under a contract share the benefits gained by the union.

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