Harper versus the unions

The differences between the new opposition and the new majority government are in stark relief on labour
Minister of Labour Lisa Raitt speaks with the media about tabling back to work legislation for the Canada Post lockout following Question Period in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday June 20, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Harper versus the unions
Adrian Wyld/CP

In the midst of June’s 47-hour filibuster over back-to-work legislation for Canada Post, New Democrat MP Wayne Marston was moved to recall the events of 1946, when “workers and veterans fought side by side in the streets” of Hamilton for better working conditions, thus launching the modern labour movement and paving the way for what would become the NDP. When it was her turn to speak, Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner apparently felt compelled to respond. “Mr. Speaker, I have been listening to many nostalgic comments across the way about the old labour movement and the unions back in 1946. I am wondering if the members opposite recognize that we are in 2011 and that we have just come through a great recession that has damaged so many countries and from which we are just recovering,” she said. “When will they realize that we are not in the old socialist days of the good old union? We are in 2011.”

Here the differences between the new Opposition and the new majority government seemed in stark relief. But that filibuster may have only been the beginning. Months later, the issue of organized labour is a source of conflict—or the potential thereof—on numerous fronts.

Last month, for instance, after party strategist Brian Topp—an official with ACTRA, the union that represents 22,000 members of the performing arts—confirmed his bid for the NDP leadership, Conservatives deemed him a “union boss” with “deep union ties.” “How,” they asked, “could Brian Topp speak on behalf of all Canadians when he is so tied to big union special interests?” Conservative MPs have compelled committee hearings into union sponsorships of events at the NDP convention in Vancouver this past spring, while Conservative backbencher Russ Hiebert, who won the draw to table the first private member’s bill, is proposing legislation that would require unions to release public financial statements. And last week, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt both moved to refer a dispute between Air Canada and the company’s flight attendants to the Canada Industrial Relations Board—thus blocking a potential strike—and mused vaguely of perhaps amending the Canadian Labour Code.

Raitt’s reference to the industrial relations board is her third intervention into a dispute between management and labour in the last five months, following Canada Post and an earlier threat to use back-to-work legislation after Air Canada flight attendants went on strike in June. In doing so, the government asserts the need to act on behalf of the economy and the national interest. “I think it is an accurate reading by the government of two related issues, the ongoing fragility in the economic recovery and the complete lack of public patience for widespread workplace disruptions in the current economic circumstances,” says Geoff Norquay, a Conservative strategist. Conservatives can also argue, though critics beg to differ, that compelling arbitration does not necessarily demonstrate preference for one side over the other. Raitt, whose grandfather was a coal miner and local union leader, feels the message of her actions should be straightforward. “I hope the message, quite frankly, is you have ample time and lots of opportunity to develop your internal labour management relationship and that you should be able to conclude a deal at the table and get it done,” she says, “especially if it is an economic issue of national significance.”

Such interventions may also do indirectly what more partisan gestures do directly: helping to define the Conservatives as careful stewards of the economy and mindful representatives of Joe Public, while casting the NDP as the old socialists, beholden to special interests.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers is contesting the government’s back-to-work legislation in court, but a poll conducted in June put support for the government’s actions to prevent work stoppages at Air Canada and Canada Post at 60 per cent. “Labour has a reputation that is not popular when any Canadian is inconvenienced,” says Paul Moist, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Moist worries that government intervention will disturb the relative peace and balance that has defined labour relations in recent years, eventually leading to more unrest, not less. Either way, organized labour would be well served, he says, to speak more widely to broader issues like labour force development, pensions, wages and household debt: matters of concern for all Canadians, unionized or not. “I think labour has a legitimate voice that we don’t always express as well as we should about these macroeconomic things,” Moist says.

NDP labour critic Yvon Godin, a former miner who was president of his local United Steelworkers branch, sounds resolute. “It’s right in my gut feeling that we have to protect the men and women who wake up in the morning and work hard,” he says. NDP strategist Brad Lavigne sees a concerted effort to undermine organized labour as part of a larger Conservative strategy to push the national discussion to the right. Attacking the NDP’s historical ties is, he notes, nothing new, but how the party should handle its traditional links to organized labour as it tries to build the broad support necessary to unseat the Conservatives is a point of some internal debate, most notably in the race to replace Jack Layton. On that count, Lavigne argues the party has already—much as Moist would have labour do—moved to broaden its message and, as a result, its support. “There’s no question that we have, in the 2008 and 2011 campaigns, already successfully furthered our reach from the traditional base,” he says.

Lavigne says New Democrats will argue that the Conservatives, rather than being good managers, are provoking unnecessary discord. Raitt says she’d welcome the NDP’s assistance in solving labour disputes. When Candice Hoeppner chastised the official Opposition in June, the NDP’s Claude Gravelle was quick with a rejoinder. “Mr. Speaker, my colleague is right,” he said. “We are in the 21st century. However, the government, along with this member, would like to bring us back to 1946.” If the current meaning of the last 65 years of national progress is thus up for discussion, there might be even longer debates ahead.