New Labo(u)r Laws: Solving Problems that Don’t Exist

The program I teach in puts a big emphasis on using case studies – giving students a description of a problem situation, getting them to think the situation through, and getting them to come up with solutions to the problem. I really enjoy teaching with case studies, because one of the things they train you to do is to reason through a problem, rather than just jumping at a solution.

Often, students will skim through a case, notice that it involves a concept they recognize – for example, dissatisfied workers – and start reeling off solutions: a suggestion box! staff parties! employee of the month award! At which point I step in and ask: what is the problem that you are trying to solve? And then they go back, look at the problem more carefully, and try to figure out what is causing it – and start thinking more logically about what solution addresses the causes of the problem.

Over the last couple of weeks, some union-related laws have been passed, here in Canada and also in the US, that beg the same question: what is the problem that you are trying to solve? Many of the governments promoting these laws claim to be against wasteful spending and against excessive government regulation. So, then, why do we have legislation like:

– The state of Michigan’s “right to work” law, which makes Michigan the 24th US state to have legislation of this type. (Here is an excellent discussion, featuring my colleague Joe Slater, of the Michigan legislation and its historical precedents.) Michigan’s “right to work” law prohibits mandatory collection of public and private sector union dues. Workers who choose not to belong to the union in their workplace don’t have to pay dues to that union, even if they benefit from the working conditions and pay rates that the union negotiates on the workers’ behalf. Even President Barack Obama spoke up about this law, responding to the reasoning that the law gives workers “choice” by saying that the right to work “means the right to work for less money“. In other words, a union receiving less financial support is less likely to have the resources it needs to negotiate a good collective agreement on behalf of the workers it represents.

Some commentators have raised what I think is a very appropriate analogy to this situation: mandatory taxation. In most North American jurisdictions, taxpayers have to pay taxes to fund services such as fire protection, policing and transportation infrastructure – even if they never personally use these services. Economists call services such as these public goods; they’re also sometimes called “social goods” or “common goods”.

The reasoning for requiring all taxpayers to pay into funding these kinds of services is that having these services available, and having them adequately funded, makes a better, safer, and more liveable society for everyone. For example, even if you personally never have to call the fire department for help, it makes your community a better place to live if that help is available when it’s needed. This is why taxpayers don’t have the option of not paying to support these kinds of services. But, oddly, some politicians shriek about things like welfare fraud, where people (allegedly) take services they’re not entitled to or don’t pay enough for,  and at the same time seem to think it’s perfectly okay for workers not to pay for the services of unions who advocate for them in the workplace.

– The federal union transparency law in Canada (Bill C-377). Before this bill was passed, it was amended so that the financial threshold for reportable transactions rose from a minimum of $5,000 to a minimum of $100,000. Now unions will only have to file reports to the Canada Revenue Agency on the details of transactions worth more than that higher amount. However, the other reporting requirements were not significantly changed, including the requirement that the details of those transactions be publicly available – including the names, addresses and contact information of any persons or businesses involved in those transactions.

Poster by the United Food and Commercial Workers opposing Bill C-377. (Credit: ucfw175.com)

Poster by the United Food and Commercial Workers opposing Bill C-377. (Credit: ucfw175.com)

I looked at the transcripts of the Parliamentary hearings into Bill C-377 and could not find anyone giving reliable evidence that Canadian unions were spending their members’ funds so recklessly that this law was needed to rein them in. Under Canada’s labour laws, unions are financially accountable to their members, and also accountable to their members for their other choices and actions.  Unions’ financial transactions are independently audited on a regular basis, and the audited financial reports are made available to the union’s membership. And, since unions are run on democratic principles, if members don’t like how the funds they provide are being spent, they have the opportunity to change that by voting at union meetings or by participating in setting operational policy.

So even without Bill C-377, unions are structured to be much more responsive to stakeholders and have a much greater degree of operational transparency than is required of many businesses and corporations in Canada. But the same politicians who shriek about wasteful government spending seem to have missed that, according to the government’s own Parliamentary Budget Office, it could cost more than $26 million to administer the provisions of this bill. Kudos to the five brave Conservative MPs who realized the foolishness of this legislation and voted against it.

– The proposed Saskatchewan Employment Act which was introduced in the Saskatchewan legislature earlier this month. This proposed legislation, among other things:

  • changes how a 40-hour work week can be scheduled (which may have the effect of eliminating overtime pay for some low-paid workers)
  • eliminates successorship rights – which allow union certification to stay in place if an employer changes – for unionized government workers in occupations like cleaning or food services. Yes, those are the type of tasks that frequently get contracted out to other employers.
  • indexes the amount of the mandatory minimum wage to inflation rates, meaning that the minimum wage rate could rise or fall. This can’t be reassuring to workers receiving minimum wage, who likely won’t see the cost of expenses like rent and food dropping if their pay rate drops.

The argument that, well, it’s not as bad as it could have been, isn’t really a ringing endorsement of this legislation. Not including extreme measures such as limiting the issues that unionized public workers could bargain over, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good legislation. I, for one, am sad to see the proposal around successorship; in my opinion, government as an employer should be a leader in fair treatment for all the workers it employs, and set a good example for other employers – not facilitate the potential de-unionization of workers in occupations that might need more, rather than less, workplace protection and advocacy.

The Saskatchewan legislation will be debated in the spring session of the legislature, which starts in March; we’ll see what happens to it then.

Ironically, or maybe not, all of this legislation is appearing just after the US federal elections saw many progressive candidates and liberal issues supported by voters, despite major campaign investments from right-wing sources. So what are the problems that these laws are trying to solve? Those election results could be the problem, at least by some people’s definition of “problem” – more progressive views gaining traction, so legislation becomes a means for more conservative interests to strike back. But I think this article makes a very thoughtful point. The outcome of these types of laws may not be the apparently desired outcome of weakening the power of unions and workers. Instead, the outcome may be the awakening and politicizing of ordinary people tired of being attacked.

Will the Canadian anti-labour laws affect what happens in Canada’s next federal and provincial elections? The next provincial election in Canada will likely be here in British Columbia – it has to take place before May 14, 2013 – and already there are indications that the Liberal government’s anti-union activities are not improving its chances at re-election. This opinion piece by a former Liberal premier’s chief of staff suggests that the traditionally pro-labour New Democratic Party (NDP) is successfully developing a more conciliatory attitude toward business and business leaders – which, if true, would certainly undercut any Liberal campaign attempts to portray the NDP as stooges of greedy unions, and an NDP government as surefire doom for the provincial economy.

The next year will be a very interesting one in a lot of respects. But let’s hope that we see  less legislation trying to solve problems that don’t exist – and maybe, instead, government resources and tax dollars invested in trying to solve problems that really are problems.

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