QFL President warns delegates of the dangers facing unions

Blurred image of people protesting

Magali Picard, the President of the Quebec Federation of Labour, and former PSAC National Vice President, addressed the 19th UCTE Triennial Convention in Montreal.  In her speech she rang a warning bell about American style so called “Right-to-work” laws and how right-wing politicians want to bring them to Canada. But what are these so-called laws?

First, let’s go back in history a bit.  In the midst of the 1930s depression, US President Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This law legalized the right of workers to form unions, to negotiate collective agreements, and strike.  It also recognized the importance of “union shops” where all workers shared the cost of maintaining their union.  Business immediately challenged the law in court and lost.  They didn’t give up, however; they just turned to the state governments to under cut the rights of workers to unionize.  So called “Right-to-work” laws are right out of the world of George Orwell where this means the exact opposite.  The laws undermine the power of workers to affectively organize their workplace and secure better wages and benefits.

In Canada, workers also gained union rights coming out of the depression and the Second World War.  In September 1945, the Ford workers in Windsor went on strike for 99 days and in doing so helped bring union security to Canada’s workplaces.  The United Autoworkers had demanded that all employees at the plant be union members, known as a closed shop, with an automatic dues check off on each pay day by the company.  Ford wanted no part of this.  They wanted a return to the “good old days” before World War II when it was hard for workers to form unions.

This issue of “union security” lead to the strike because the workers knew effective unions needed financial support.  Ford had agreed to a similar arrangement with its US employees so why not in Canada?  Prior to dues checkoff each payday the Union Steward would have to approach each worker and ask for their dues.  They would then be given a pin to wear that showed they were members in good standing.

To settle the strike, the federal government stepped in with binding arbitration. The arbitrator, Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rand, provided for the dues check-off, but not for the union shop.  This meant that when a majority of workers join a union all workers who benefited from the collective agreement had to pay dues to support it. But they did not have to become members of the union.  In return, the union would be required to enforce the collective agreement and its benefits for all employees.  This quickly became a standard in Canadian Labour relations and why employees that don’t sign a union card today are called “Rand employees.”

In the US, business interests supported by the Republicans, brought in laws to under cut what in Canada we call the “Rand Formula.” This transformation took spread even to once strong union states like Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin. By 2016, laws in 27 U.S. states plus the territory of Guam required that all employees receive the benefits of any collective bargaining agreement but don’t have to pay a cent for that benefit. Such laws are a way to reward “freeloaders” and at the same time to weaken the financial power of unions.

An op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this year explained the goals of so called “Right-to-work” laws this way:

By stripping unions of the essential tools to organize working-class voters and lobby for worker-friendly policies, right-to-work laws have deprived the working class of a critical point of access to the political process, curbing a formerly key element of the Democratic coalition. Labor unions consistently point to the negative effect these laws have on workers’ political influence, and recent analysis by economists and sociologists backs their claims. Studies indicate that right-to-work laws directly reduce wages in states that pass them, shift the political balance of power toward conservative politicians and lower the economic resources that labor unions have to organize and advocate for workers.

Or in the words of Martin Luther King, the goal of right to work laws “is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.” But it won’t happen in Canada, will it? As recent as 2008 the Conservative Party of Canada policy called for such American-styled laws. The right-wing think tank, the Fraser Institute, has called on provincial governments to pass such laws. So yes, it can happen here if we are not careful. And that was the warning bell that Magali Picard rang for the delegates.

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