Monday, March 18, 2013

The Escalating War on Labour

We hear that Ontario's ongoing dispute with teachers is about extra curricular activities and the deficit. It's about neither. Tom Walkom writes in the Toronto Star:

At its heart, this fight is about work. It is about the implicit deal struck between governments, employers and employees more than 50 years ago to make the workplace a fairer place.

It is about the unravelling of that deal.

Fifty years ago, a carefully constructed set of rules applied to labour negotiations:

Ontario’s law established criteria under which unions could organize a workplace. Employers, in turn were required to at least talk to a union that had met this threshold.

Each side was allowed to use the ultimate sanction, a work stoppage. A union could strike. An employer could, by locking out its employees, bar them from working.

But there were rules to this game. Bargaining had to be conducted in good faith. Strikes and lock-outs could take place only when a collective agreement had lapsed. A government board was established to act as umpire.

Employees deemed essential, such as nurses and police officers, were barred from striking. In return, decisions on their wages and working conditions were set by neutral arbitrators.
Throughout, the legislature always retained the right to end, through back-to-work laws, any labour dispute it deemed harmful. In virtually all such cases, though, those ordered back to work received wages and benefits decided by a neutral arbitrator.

But, last year, the McGuinty government trashed that system. The man who billed himself as "The Education Premier" decided that Ontarians could no longer afford the rules:

The Liberal government of Wynne and Dalton McGuinty changed all that. Its Bill 115 gave cabinet alone the right to set wages and working conditions for teachers — without letting bargaining run its course, without neutral arbitration.

This settlement, whether agreed to or not by teachers, was deemed a legal contract. Any action to protest that contract by withdrawing paid labour services through a strike is therefore, by definition, illegal.

Stephen Harper has taken the same approach at the federal level. Government has declared war on labour -- and decreed that labour must bail capital out.


Lorne said...

Apropos of your post, Owen, there is a story in the print edition of this morning's Star about a report being released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives suggesting that Ontario's embrace of austerity, of which Bill 115 is an example, has done much more harm than good for a number of reasons. One of those is that the measure may have emboldened people like Tim Hudak, who would dearly love to strip Ontario workers of their union rights.

Just as the measures introduced by Bob Rae when he was the Ontario premier paved the way for the disastrous Mike Harris era, so too, it would seem, the Liberals may well have made the same mistake with their heavy-=handed disdain for teachers' bargaining rights.

Owen Gray said...

When push came to shove, Lorne, the McGuinty Liberals bowed to the same gods the Harris Tories worshiped.

In the end, the "Education Premier" genuflected to the monied elite.

Fightfordemocracy said...

Governments may be attacking labour. But the Ontario teachers sure didn't do much to defend themselves. They cut back on the unpaid overtime and had a few rotating one-day strikes at the end. Big deal.

I talked to a few Toronto teachers in October and they seemed somehow embarassed and annoyed that I asked them about their labour situation. Some people are only technically in a union and privately feel their personal virtues are such that they don't need a union. They are much too "nice" to involve themselves with mucky union stuff. Perhaps I had the misfortune to be talking to such people.

I would have supported the teachers if there had been anything to support. When I think of the Quebec student protests - just kids, but what guts, style, organisation. They invited public support, they didn't chase it away with half-hearted lukewarmness.

I don't wish to be unkind and maybe there are things I don't understand, but given my current state of knowledge, I think the way the teachers' unions responded to the government attack was a model of how not to do it.

Owen Gray said...

There was a time, Fighting, when a lot of teachers grew up in union households. We knew what the fights were about. I'd venture that most teachers today have had no experience of labour unrest.

They think they are above that kind of conflict. And they forget that unions brought them the forty hour week, paid holidays and pensions.

Now that all of those things are once again under attack, it would be wise to do what unions did 80 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Yes...all things come full circle...labour cannot possible bailout capitalism, and the game being played in political circles, albeit by governments towing the line for their corporate masters, lobby groups, or backroom deal makers.

Labour has to go back to its roots, educate and retrain itself and the followers, to truly stand up for the beliefs and the hard won gains of their past.

This current "con" game will only end when the fight for rights, wages, and political balance, is renewed with avengance....

Owen Gray said...

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, Anon, that the public's economic memory only stretches back about thirty or forty years.

That's why every three or four decades, people can be taken to the cleaners.

And so it is with labour. Today's movers and shakers -- as well as the general public -- have no concept of what the labour disputes of fifty years were all about.