Provincial Elections: When Populism Threatens Workers’ Rights

by Geneviève Malouin-Rivard

We face a host of issues in this election campaign, which kicks off tomorrow. Hard though it is to believe, trade unionism, a tradition of such long standing in Quebec, will be under debate this fall!

Some of our politicians are calling for the abolition of the Rand Formula, which came about through a Supreme Court ruling based on the labour relations philosophy that a workers’ association is a necessary counterbalance to employer power. The Rand Formula recognizes the critical role of trade unions by protecting their security and sustainability through the compulsory deduction of union dues from employees’ pay and direct remittance of these dues to the union head office.

At a time when democracy is being whittled down to mere procedural practices, the democratizing power of trade unionism is worth recollecting. As Alain Savard notes, “the purpose of the trade union movement is to build collective power” against the all too often obscure or invisible power of large corporations.

The public political education that unions provide for their members helps to clarify the influence of the elite on government which, when it comes down to it, is not neutral in the least. Austerity is really a form of attack against the democratic gains of grassroots power, gains achieved through prolonged and persistent social struggle. We are not about to allow present-day financial interests to destroy the hard work of the past.

The main impact of abolishing the Rand Formula will be to jeopardize the quality of working conditions for the middle class, not to mention attempting to squeeze the middle class out of public debate.

Situation in the United States

For our neighbours to the south, the protection of workers’ interests is a considerable challenge. Donald Trump’s presidency has an entrepreneurial, employer-centric, elitist undertone and his cabinet consists of billionaires and CEOs. His actions utterly contradict his self-proclaimed role as spokesman for the working class.

In fact, the current U.S. government is waging a relentless battle against the gains made by workers, as proven beyond any question by the appointment of two anti-union lawyers to the National Labor Relations Board. Furthermore, the growing popularity of right-to-work laws is clearly indicative of the crisis of legitimacy confronting the trade union movement in the United States.

Right-to-work laws have now been enacted in 27 U.S. states, enabling employees to reap the benefits negotiated by their unions without being members or supporting them financially. Because funding is crucial, these workers’ associations have collapsed without it.

As former president Obama noted, right-to-work laws mean “the right to work for less money.” In fact, the current decline in trade union membership coincides with the steepest rise in income inequality since the economic crisis of the 1930s. Significantly, too, the number of fatal workplace accidents is 53% higher in right-to-work states.

And it is not just eroding working conditions: unemployment is also a factor. Seven of the 10 states with the highest unemployment rates are right-to-work states.

In essence, the weakening of union powers invariably foretells social crisis.

Legitimate Lobby Group

The purpose of the trade union movement is to advocate for those who are not at the top. This means that unions must act in response to initiatives that undermine the common good.

And yet the legitimacy of union political action has often been challenged. In 1991’s Lavigne v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, for example, a professor objected to his dues being used for lobbying purposes in a disarmament campaign. In this excerpt from Lavigne, the Court ruled in favour of the union’s political action because “there is a strong and useful tradition in this country of affiliation between labour unions and political activity. A strong argument can be made that to achieve their legitimate ends and maintain the proper balance between labour and management, unions must to some extent engage in political activities.”

In other words, unions are responsible for extending their sphere of influence to the public domain, the preferred forum for debating social issues, because matters that may not be included in a collective agreement still warrant discussion, questioning and general awareness.

In the Field

More tangibly, union political action can take a number of forms. Publicly taking a position is still the best way to make an issue part of reasonable, balanced, constructive social discussion. For this reason, PSAC engages in political action to lobby for causes adopted democratically by its membership at its conventions.

Its action has included PSAC’s mobilization in January 2018 to prevent the closure of the Guy-Favreau Child Care Centre. In April 2018, we supported United Steelworkers at the ABI Smelter in Bécancour in its efforts to obtain a better collective agreement.

For more than two years, PSAC has been criticizing the inaction of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in the Phoenix fiasco. And PSAC is still working shoulder to shoulder with the FTQ to lobby for a $15 an hour minimum wage, and conducting a public information campaign on the issue.

In other words, our political engagement is necessary to unite all workers in a single rallying cry. We cannot allow the elite to strip us of the power it has taken us years to acquire!