On Saturday, the House of Commons led by Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party passed back-to-work legislation in order to force urban postal workers to return to work. I’m not opposed to back-to-work laws in general; virtually all unionized public workers are susceptible to these types of laws when there is a prolonged failure to reach a bargaining agreement. However, I am a little bitter at the speed and manner with which it was imposed this time around.
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers started rotating strikes a couple weeks ago culminating in a one day strike in Montreal and Toronto last week. Canadians in effect had to wait an extra day for their mail. The Canada Post Corporation then decided to lockout all 54,000 urban postal workers (effectively locking out the 21,000 rural workers who were not on strike and still getting paid) in hopes the government would force them back to work. Sure enough within 48 hours the Conservative government tabled legislation to do just that. Given the prospect of a back-to-work bill, Canada Post had no incentive to cut a deal with its workers. For this reason, back-to-work laws are passed only as a last resort.
“It’s an indication of what’s to come for other public service workers who are unionized,” said Deputy NDP leader Thomas Mulcair. “But it’s also a signal from the Conservatives to all employers in a union setting or otherwise that it’s an open bar. They can start going after the acquired rights of their workers.”
A poll of Canadians showed that 70% favoured the back-to-work law; many of these same people were not at all clear on the facts, thanks in large part to the mainstream media. Safety and pensions of new employees were the main sticking points, not wages. Letter carrier wages are in fact on par with those of private companies (UPS, FedEx, etc.). Canada Post can afford it; they have posted profits for the last 15 years even through the most recent recession. Most importantly, the main work stoppage was due to Canada post locking out its employees, not the letter carriers refusing to deliver the mail.
The recent attacks on unions in Canada, Wisconsin and elsewhere by conservative governments come as no surprise; for conservatives, unions are represented by their opposition and are a direct threat to their power. The “Winter of Discontent” in the United Kingdom set up the modern dissatisfaction with unions and led to the election of the most anti-union conservative on record, Margaret Thatcher.
When Margaret Thatcher came to power in the U.K. in 1979 there were approximately twelve million unionized workers in the public and private sector. In only a few years of Thatcher’s reign that number was cut in half to six million, reducing the base of the opposition Labour Party and letting the Tories run away with the 1983 election. Economic Nobel laureate Milton Friedman once said that unions keep down the number of jobs, but as Thatcher worked to revamp the union laws unemployment doubled in the country from 1.5 million to 3 million, a figure that dogged Mrs. Thatcher the rest of her time in office.
Unions, public or private, seem to have all the normal traits of human beings. They can be weak, strong, passive or aggressive even sneaky and stupid, but that’s for the union organizations to decide not the government. It only takes one man (or woman) in power to erase decades of progress, the citizens of Wisconsin realized that quickly and revolted almost to the point where the government plan backfired.
We as a people have to open our eyes and pay close attention to our government’s intentions. What may seem to be a quick easy fix from the outside can sometimes hinder our democratic freedoms, and nothing is more important in a democracy than the right to organize.
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