Canadian labour is entering the 2021 election in dire straits. Union density has been steadily declining since the 1980s. Although the Liberal party victory in 2015 gave hesitant hope for improved union membership, the results have been underwhelmingly stagnant. From 1981 to 2014, unionization rates plummeted from 37.6 per cent to 28.8 per cent and improved roughly two per cent by 2020. Little about this is surprising to labour leaders. However, with the Conservative party vying for leadership, labour may be faced with a new challenge.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has championed labour policies pundits are calling union-friendly. However, many of the policies he has addressed publicly are little more than embellishments for far more sinister reform.
In August, O’Toole announced he would purportedly “ensure” workers are represented on the boards of large federally regulated private corporations that employ over 1,000 workers or have annual revenues over $100 million. This includes sectors such as oil and gas, trucking, ports, railways, banking, uranium mining, telecommunications, air transportation, crown corporations and more.
O’Toole offered the policy to Canadians with little detail and a lot of political posturing. In the news release outlining his new policy proposal, O’Toole discussed getting workers a seat at the table, taking advantage of a popular rhetorical phrase used by unionists occupying the left side of the political spectrum.
“Too many decisions at major corporations are being made without the people who helped build the company — the workers — at the table,” the news release read.
Instead of using this allegory while simultaneously empowering working-class agency, O’Toole has offered labourers a physical seat at various corporations’ boards. While the idea of O’Toole offering workers an actual seat to keep them docile is humorous, the policy is tokenistic at best. By exploiting union discourse, he may think he can appeal to a new voting base without committing to the cause wholeheartedly.
“Conservatives have essentially run the same campaign over and over again since 2006,” an advisor for O’Toole said in an interview with the conservative-leaning National Post. “If we want to win, we have to do something different.”
O’Toole is likely using this allegedly labour-friendly policy to attract voters. Whether the policy will be implemented to advance tangible material benefits for workers is unlikely. The Conservative party has not indicated the degree of power these representatives will have, how many seats workers will obtain or if the representatives will be glorified advisors that can be pushed aside and ignored by corporate board members.
Fundamentally, this policy won’t change any of the systemic competitive pressures that motivate the exploitation of workers. O’Toole knows this, and it shows considering many of his other labour policies are radically anti-labour.
Take a longer look through O’Toole’s policy declarations, and detailed COVID-19 recovery plan and readers will find the Conservative party is still sternly corporate at heart. Much of this policy is mentioned in brief and seemingly unassuming statements to hide its conservative nature.
For example, in section 14 of the Conservative’s policy declarations, it notes the party “supports right to work legislation to allow optional union membership including student unions.” While this may seem like a moderate commitment, mandatory union dues were a historic victory for labourers when it was first introduced.
Mandatory union dues, part of the Rand formula, were introduced after militant unionists nearly brought the Ford Motor Company in Windsor, Ont. to its knees.
Justice Ivan Rand was responsible for arbitrating the dispute. Workers wanted the manufacturing plant to become a closed shop for union members only so they could negotiate fairly with employers without the threat of workplace lockouts or scab labour — a person who continues to work despite striking co-workers. On the other hand, employers wanted workers to return to the plant without any changes in employment structures.
Rand concluded that while workers should not be forced into association with unions, they should still have to contribute to the costs of collective bargaining. As a result, mandatory union fees became the baseline model for modern labour politics.
The formula ensured the function of unions and a steady progression of worker rights through collective bargaining processes. Should the formula be abandoned, labourers could be helplessly exposed to employers’ economic agendas. This includes the exploitation of more scab labour, which would play a significant role in reducing union influence. Without the Rand formula — or a union with considerable resources to challenge corporate giants — a single seat at a board of directors’ table would be meaningless.
Furthermore, the Conservative party remains committed to setting unionized workers against migrants. Approximately 1.6 million migrant workers don’t have permanent status, making them extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
Migrant labourers lacking permanent status also lack the right to form unions, vote, access universal health care and employment standards that Canadians are accustomed to. As a result, migrant work is often used as a cheaper and more exploitative form of labour to maintain higher rates of corporate surplus. In turn, employers blame migrants for driving down wages and access to employment while they actively partake in repressing their access to basic rights.
With complete citizenship, migrant workers would have access to resources to fight employment abuse, not fear reprisal and contribute to union dues where it applies. Migrant workers have historically been treated poorly by the working class partially due to their informal status.
Instead of affording more rights to migrants, O’Toole plans to rework the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to provide more power to corporations. The adjusted program would make migrants’ so-called “path to permanence” dependent on employer sponsorship programs. This policy could escalate workplace exploitation by placing unreasonable power in the hands of corporate management.
The path to improved work standards, pay and benefits for all Canadian workers starts with making migrant workers permanent residents.
Although O’Toole has propagated a pro-labour stance publicly, his platform says otherwise. Providing a seat at the board of directors of a large corporation is a manipulative promise that conceals O’Toole’s more controversial labour policy. Pundits can continue to call O’Toole a friend of the labour movement all they want, but post-election he will expose his true form: a conservative politician in a unionist’s clothing.