‘Unions Matter’ in Canada

When newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau entered the doors of a Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) meeting in Ottawa last November, he became the first sitting prime minister to make such a visit in more than 50 years.  He assured the labour leaders in attendance that he would follow through on the Liberal party campaign pledge to repeal anti-union legislation, and told them that he realizes that “labour is not a problem, but a solution.” It was a sign of a new way of government in Canada, and most certainly a new, and long overdue, political environment for organized labour.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with IUPAT General Vice President Robert Kucheran (right).
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with IUPAT General Vice President Robert Kucheran (right).

In October 2015, Trudeau was elected prime minister of Canada.  The leader of the Liberal party, Trudeau unseated Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper, who had served as prime minister for the previous ten years.  It was a highly charged race filled with negative campaigning, especially so from the Conservative party.  Yet, Trudeau, now the second youngest prime minister in Canadian history at 43, ran his campaign much differently.  His campaign theme was “Real Change,” and he practiced what he termed “positive politics” in the race. In fact, in his victory speech he told his supporters and the country watching him on television that “This is what positive politics can do.  This is what a positive, hopeful vision, and a platform and a team together can make happen.”

Trudeau’s win was a decisive one with the Liberal party taking 184 of the 338 seats in parliament – a result that is widely credited to the discordant decade for the middle class under Harper’s administration leading up to this Election Day.  Labour unions in particular were rallying against Harper and the Conservative party because of the former prime minister’s contemptuous legislative attacks on organized labour.

Although there are many examples of such attacks, two stand out above the rest.

In July 2015, Bill C-377 was passed by Harper’s Conservative party which required unions to publicly disclose any spending of $5,000 or more and any salary of more than $100,000.  Supporters of the bill claimed it was for the sake of transparency and accountability.  It was touted by them as a new tax law that was passed to require organizations that receive special tax benefits (unions are tax-exempt on revenue and members can deduct dues from their personal income) to give full disclosure on how they spend their money.  However, this law only applied to unions,  not to charities, corporations or any other groups that also received tax benefits.

It was lost on no one how similar this legislation was to U.S. President George W. Bush’s push on heightened reporting requirements for unions under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) beginning in 2003.  Both actions were a clear and undeniable attack on unions meant to bury them in red tape, cause internal strife and pit employers against labour over how union dues and revenue were spent.

Another piece of Canadian legislation passed on Harper’s watch was Bill C-525.  This bill amended the process of union certification and decertification.  It eliminated the card-check system (where majority support of a union was established by collecting cards from a majority of employees) in the federally-regulated sectors, and replace it with a system where a minimum of 45 percent of the workforce would submit signed cards and then the Labour Board would call a vote.  The clear intent, union leaders again maintained, was to lengthen the certification process and give companies more of an opportunity to intimidate employees to vote non-union and drive organizing success down.  The bill also allowed a vote of decertification to be initiated by a minority of union members instead of a majority.  A way to further deplete the ranks of union members.

Opening the Door to “Real Change”

These two pieces of legislation seemed to be the tipping point for labour to unify and take action in the next election.  “We’ll redouble our efforts to make sure Harper doesn’t get re-elected,” said Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, to CBC News.  Even members of Harper’s party understood that they had perhaps overreached with the anti-union legislation.  As CBC News reported, former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal said the bills could “hurt the Conservatives in dozens of ridings where labour unions could influence the outcome of the fall vote.”  He went on to lament, “Why somebody would decide that kind of suicidal, ideologically narrow excess is in the national or the party’s interest or the primes minster’s interests is completely beyond me.”

The worries of the former senator proved to be correct. Not only did Trudeau promise to repeal C-377 and C-525, he ran on a platform that included infrastructure investment, resources for job training and governmental reform to protect the interests of the middle class.  With a united labour coalition pushing against Harper and his party, and voter fatigue with Conservative divisive politics, Trudeau and the liberal party easily captured parliamentary majority.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with leaders in the Canadian Building Trades Unions.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with leaders in the Canadian Building Trades Unions.

“The Trudeau government has received a strong mandate from Canadians and now the hard work begins,” said Robert Kucheran, general vice president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and chair of the Canadian Building Trades. “Our members make up part of Canada’s middle class and we look forward to partnering with his cabinet to improving the lives of Canadians.”

What’s in store for labour now that Trudeau is in office?  As a start, true to his word, the Liberal government waived requirements mandated by C-377 last December, and has since begun the legislative process to repeal both bills.

In an interview with Media Planet, Trudeau made it clear that he realizes the success of the middle class in Canada is highly dependent on the success of the labour movement.  “Canadians need to know that unions matter,” said Trudeau. “They need to know that unions are essential in the fight for fair wages. Canadians need a government, which instead of attacking unions, works with them to ensure that every Canadian has a real and fair chance at success.”

Trudeau is also putting specifics together on his 10-year, $125 billion infrastructure plan to create jobs and boost the condition of the public transit, green infrastructure and social infrastructure.

Moreover, resources for training and apprenticeships also remain a top priority for Trudeau, with a concentration on apprenticeship ratios on federal projects.  In a letter penned to Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour MaryAnn Mihychuk, Trudeau laid out his expectations for her office.  As minister, “your overarching goal will be to help Canadians get the skills they need for good quality jobs,” he wrote.  As a part of that mandate, he instructed her to develop “a framework to fund training facilities delivered in partnership with labour unions.”

It is early in his administration, but Trudeau is working in stark contrast to Harper when it comes to labour unions and middle class, and the unified force of the labour movement had much to do with it.  While so many pundits and opponents are always ready to count organized labour out when it comes to politics, unions continue to come together to make a difference in politics and beyond.

In case you didn’t notice, it is a presidential election year in the United States.  It’s time to follow the lead of our brothers and sisters to the north and do everything in our power to put a pro-union president in the White House.  Contact your district council today to find out how you can join our political action efforts.