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For real “worker choice”: Yes to $14 minimum wage, no to Hudak

Michelle Robidoux

February 7, 2014

With two by-election campaigns in full swing, the battle lines are drawn for workers in Ontario. Conservative party leader Tim Hudak has vowed to introduce anti-union legislation if his party forms the next government and the arguments are being given a test-drive in this by-election. With a general election likely this year, the stakes are high for every working class person in the province.
Debunking “worker choice” and the “Million Jobs Act”
Hudak's legislation, which he has dubbed “worker choice,” is modeled on laws in place in 24 US states. Among other things, it would outlaw any requirement that workers who benefit from a union collective agreement pay union dues. It would also make illegal all clauses in collective agreements that require workers to join a union, outlaw dues check-off in the public sector, and interfere in the internal affairs of unions by requiring that strike votes and ratification votes be supervised by the government.
Hudak hopes to tap into anger and insecurity caused by the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs and the lack of decent jobs, to convince workers they will be better off if they aren't required to pay union dues. But behind the fig-leaf of  “worker choice” is a very different agenda. When pressed on the real aim of the legislation during a recent CBC interview, Conservative labour critic Monty McNaughton said it was about 'modernizing' labour policies to create more “workplace flexibility.” This is Conservative code for removing obstacles to lowering wages and conditions.
It doesn't take long to connect the dots between Hudak's bogus 'worker choice' claims and the real agenda of driving down wages to boost corporate profits. As a result, Hudak has run into friction in his own party as Conservative candidates find it hard to camouflage the anti-worker intent of these policies. One candidate, Dave Brister, has already been bounced for publicly opposing Hudak's 'right-to-work' policies.
Cue Hudak's “Million Jobs Act.” On January 13, Hudak announced that he will soon introduce a bill which he claims will create one million jobs over 8 years. Far from creating living-wage jobs, the bill will actually cut 10,000 public sector jobs. It is a Trojan horse hiding Hudak's deeply anti-worker policies under the promise of jobs.
Workers rights campaign
In response to Hudak's attacks, union activists across the province are organizing in defense of their rights. Workers' rights campaigns by several unions including CUPE, USW, Unifor and SEIU are mobilizing and arming union members with information about the threat posed by Hudak's policies.
One of the reasons Hudak's arguments about “worker choice” can gain a hearing is because of the distance many ordinary union members feel from their union. Too often, union structures are geared towards talking to management rather than talking to workers. For many union activists, the Workers Rights campaign is the opportunity they have been waiting for to engage members in a discussion about the value of unions.
In the context of unprecedented and relentless attacks by employers and governments on working class living standards, this campaign is vital. Workers' ability to fight will be greatly weakened if Hudak's arguments are not challenged in every workplace and every community.
A layer of the full-time union bureaucracy is completely disconnected from the real and present danger confronting workers' ability to fight if Hudak's policies are brought in. Another layer of the bureaucracy does see the danger, and wants the mobilization to defeat Hudak ­ but only so that things can go back to 'normal'. This is not an option. We need to seize this opportunity to transform how we organize to make our unions stronger from the bottom up.
The battles of the 1940s at Ford and Stelco that won the Rand Formula and union security involved tens of thousands of workers in direct action to defend their rights. (Paradoxically, their very success created conditions for the bureaucratization of unions and the 'professionalization' of basic union functions.) Whether or not Hudak succeeds in this particular bid to demolish unions, the employers will keep organizing to squeeze more out of workers. Our ability to resist depends on retooling our unions for the fight.
While Hudak pushes to weaken worker's rights by attacking unions, labour and community activists are pushing to raise the minimum wage to $14. This fight, along with the campaign to save Canada Post, creates a strong pole away from the individualism of Hudak's 'worker choice' and towards the collective power of workers.
Disgracefully, the NDP has deserted the field of battle. They have been silent on both 'right-to-work' and on raising the minimum wage. As Martin Regg Cohn wrote in The Star, “By her conspicuous silence, Horwath left the field wide open to the business lobby and the business press to badmouth any increase as a job-killer that will hurt the economy—echoed, predictably, by the Tories. When did the party of the working poor lose its voice? Listen to the sound of Horwath clearing her throat when she finally emerged from the NDP¹s Witness Protection Program this week—nine days after the panel¹s exhaustive report, and nine months after its work started.‘Well, look, I respect the work of the grassroots movements that have been calling for the $14 minimum wage, but I think that what our role is right now is to consult with families that are affected, as well as small business particularly that¹s also affected,’ she told reporters Tuesday.”
Liberal Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi, meanwhile, has challenged Hudak's anti-union policies as “the right-to-work-for-less as we have seen in the United States,” saying it will result in a net loss of jobs. The irony of the union-busting Liberals posing as friends of workers is only outdone by the irony of a "labour party" not fighting for an increase in the minimum wage.
Demand the $14 minimum wage, save Canada Post, and rebuild unions
To defeat Hudak, we can't leave it to the election. Pushing for the $14 minimum wage, fighting to save the post office and organizing in every workplace against Hudak's anti-union policies is top priority. As soon as the writ is dropped for the provincial election, every union will try to shift into the “business as usual” election mode. Especially given that the NDP is not speaking out about Hudak's proposals, and that it has handed the minimum wage issue to the Liberals, it would be disastrous to drop the workers' rights campaign.
We can defeat Hudak's attack. But there is a lot of work to do to counter the media lies about the reality of “right-to-work.” As Harper's record shows, in Hudak's world, “worker choice” won't extend to the “choice” to refuse unsafe work. Harper's recent Bill C-4 gives the federal Minister of Labour the authority to throw out any unsafe work refusal complaint without investigation, leaving employees who refuse unsafe work open to discipline, including dismissal. The impact of these changes to health and safety protection will reach far beyond the federal public service to the 1.2 million private and public sector workers covered by the Canada Labour Code. And as we know from the Lac Mégantic disaster, worker safety and community safety go hand in hand.
On February 15 join the rally for a $14 minimum wage, 1pm at Dundas Square.
On February 24, join the public forum "Yes to $14/hr minimum wage, No to Hudak: the fight to raise the minimum wage and rebuild unions", 7pm at OISE

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