U.S. Right-to-Work Thinking Now Infecting Canada

It’s clear we’re going to have to gear up our arguments on right-to-work laws, dues check-off, the Rand Formula, etc.

In the last year three mainstream parties have introduced proposals for right-to-work style legal changes in Canada (Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party, the Wild Rose Alliance, and now yesterday Tim Hudak’s Ontario PCs).  This used to be terrain solely inhabited by the Fraser Institute and similar far-right camps, but no longer.  Clearly the postwar mainstream consensus that unionization was something to be at least tolerated (or, initially, actively supported) as a mechanism for managing income distribution and workplace relations is long defunct. 

Developments in the U.S. (including the northward spread of right-to-work laws, most recently to Indiana, and the dictatorial suppression of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere) are clearly exerting influence (both economically and politically) north of the border.

Given the general enmity with which unions are currently viewed in many quarters, and the determination by both employers and right-wing politicians that trying to actually destroy unions is both economically and politically feasible, we need to be responding in spades to these arguments. 

Some of the obvious conceptual points to counter Hudak and Co. would include:

* Union membership is very rarely “compulsory” (except under true closed shop arrangements which are rare).  Under Rand-type laws individuals choose to join or not, but everyone pays dues (to charity if not to the union).

* The economic theory in favour of Rand-type arrangements (as a solution to a well-known “free rider” problem that produces chronic under-investment in collective goods) is strong.

* And of course, workers must make a collective voluntary democratic decision (by secret ballots that are manipulated by employers yet, in most jurisdictions) before any type of Rand-style arrangement can be put in place.

* There’s a strong anology to taxes: citizens make democratic majority decisions in elections for their government, which then levies taxes to pay for agreed programs.  If taxes were “voluntary” then we’d have no schools, hospitals, or roads, and society would collapse.  The true goal of right-to-work advocates is precisely that: to cause unions to collapse.

* Private-sector unionization has declined by 5 points in Canada over the last 15 years, to 17% in 2011.

* Ontario’s unionization rate is the second-lowest in Canada (after Alberta): under 28% in 2011, and under 15% in the private sector.

* Strike frequency (days lost in strikes & lockouts as share of total days worked) is 0.03%, down over 90% since the good old 1970s.

* With falling unionization and rare work stoppages, what do these groups think the “problem” is?

* The link between declining unionization and growing inequality is strong and well-documented.  If we are concerned with inequality, then we should be working to strengthen collective bargaining relationships (as Newfoundland is doing, for example, with last week’s modest labour law reforms), not to destroy them 

Here are a couple of older research pieces on this matter I have dusted off and posted on the CAW site for our collective ease in reviewing them:

“Going South: Cheap Labour as an Unfair Subsidy in North American Free Trade”: My paper published by the CCPA in 1991, it estimates that right-to-work laws reduce manufacturing wages by over 15 percent, and then argues this is a “distortion” in normal democratic compensation practices that should be actionable under countervail law.  (Of course, our enemies argue that it is unions that are the “distortion”!)


“Bad Work”: A compendium assembled by the Centre for Research on Work and Society at York in 1997. It contains papers by several labour scholars dissecting a Fraser Institute publication earlier that year expounding the virtues of right-to-work laws.


I’d be interested in hearing about other resources that people may have at hand countering the underlying assumptions and empirical claims about right-to-work laws. In my view the labour movement needs to take this debate very very seriously.


  • Part of the larger “Growth and Jobs” mantra, politicians and banksters are spewing I’m afraid, or if you can manage to get past their bull crap, the promise of profits and slave wage labour. Right to work laws for employees, can win them only that, work. And the rights thing, if there are actual any attached, can only be assumed to allow for the unfettered right to be worked over!.

  • Perhaps a little dirty poker is in order. Every demand for open shop legislation should be met with a similar demand for professional workers. Lets see what the dentists, doctors, accountants, lawyers and engineers have to say when the same rules are applied to them. It falls in the same vein as tenured economics profs prattling on about free trade.

    Some times one needs to cut off one’s face just to spite one’s nose:).


  • To all,

    If your only response is to nitpick their claims, you are missing the point of this exercise.

    The con’s are attempting to create a simple narrative for our troubled times. They have chosen their villains (unions) and their heroes (the southern United States).

    Progressives must give people a simple narrative to rally around. The real villains are incompetent financial gamblers. The real heroes are the Scandinavians.

    If you take this line of attack, you win the debate on unionization.

    Sweden (among others) has a unionization rate of over 50%. They also have a powerful economy, strong government, beautiful people, and a great quality of life.

    When the average joe/jane thinks of high unionization rates, they should imagine beautiful blondes.

    When they think of low unionization rates, they should imagine bad teeth.

    KISS = Keep It Simple Stupid – On TV, On paper, On Twitter, EVERYWHERE!

  • Travis Fast,

    Close, but a bit off.

    Instead of confronting them, convince them that they’re not safe.

    None of those conservative-voting dairy farmers had a clue Harper would offer them up as sacrificial lambs. Then it happened, and all of a sudden they had to leave work to debate Liberal yuppies on TV.

    None of those conservative-voting seniors had a clue Harper would mess with their retirement. Then it happened, and all of a sudden many games of shuffle-board were ruined.

    The Conservatives have just attacked COPS, FIREFIGHTERS, NURSES, DOCTORS…just about every profession people respect.

    If these guys turn on a policy or party, they bring alot of relatives and well-wishers with them.

    Recruit an army, don’t fight a civil war.

  • @Dan,

    It would be great if keeping it simple was a solution, and potentially it is. However, as incomes have polarized and work has become more precarious in Canada, there has been a grand illusion successfully embedded within the working classes. The haves- (union members) and the have-nots (non-union).

    That is the real predicament that fuels the tories intra-class war. And if organized labour does not think that what I am saying is the problem they must contend with- then they will lose the war.

    It is what many have been focusing on, the whole notion of social unionism, but sadly with limited success. Many unions are apolitical and do not spend enough resources on the wider engagement of members in other movements let alone engaging them within the labour movement itself (death of the local).

    So yes it does start with recreating the image, but it is a bit difficult to work on image when many non-union are indeed the have-nots of the social class. I hate to agree with one simple fact, most union members are elite workers in our economy. So how do we transcend this- organize and and engage the wider movement- embed labour within many different movements- so it is not just about bargaining a better wage and benefits.

    Organically link to these other movements, occupy/environment/arts/ music etc. while at the same time rebuilding from the ground work a focal point on the local and renewal at that level is imperative.

    So yes the average Jane/Joe should have a different image within their emotional make up of connecting to unions- but it is a very daunting task that lay ahead. However, I do believe labour is still embedded very strongly within communities and within many institutions, so they do have a position of strength, it is leadership/innovation/creativity/ and lots and lots of political capacity building to enable the legalistic framework it operates in to become less threatening. (I wish I could underline that last one)

    One would think that the Tories have done some polling in Ontario, so do not take this as some misguided opportunistic ideological farce. I do believe the polling has been done, and sadly as we become mired in more recession and more spiraling downward, intraclass warfare becomes quite a tinderbox and the tories know this. Divide and conquer.

  • Paul Tulloch (or France),

    In the future, please limit your notice of surrender to one paragraph (sincerely, Germany).

    There is no “predicament” or “need to transcend”. That is all defeatist gibberish.

    Past polling shows most Canadians are agnostic and ignorant on the issue of labour unions. They do not have firmly held beliefs, either way.

    And most Canadians are not the resentful class warriors you imagine them to be. They do not resent rich CEO’s who are astronomically richer, or unionized workers who are only slightly richer than themselves. They are merely concerned with maintaining their own economic security.

    What is going on is that there’s a bad economy.
    People are confused and crave simple explanations.

    The conservatives have obliged. Thankfully, they have been made lazy by corporate largesse and a media monopoly in their favour. Their statistics are weak and their imagery tone-deaf (do they really want a showdown between the American south and Sweden?).

    Progressives have a greater comprehension of values, facts, and aesthetics. We just fail to meet the expectations of our audience.

    Hence, keep it simple stupid: http://www.progressive-economics.ca/2012/06/28/u-s-right-to-work-thinking-now-infecting-canada/#comment-55352

  • Dan with views like that, you want to talk denial?

    CAnadians are agnostic towards unions are you an being serious? – potentially you have never been in a smaller community say like Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Ottawa, a forestry- or potentially you have never worked?

    I am sorry Dan but with such rose coloured glasses on, you sure do have some contorted optimism going- are you a tory and somehow trying to lead labour off a cliff?

    BAnners and slogans and it being a matter of simply
    failing to deliver the right message is a huge misunderstanding of labour. Sorry but for me to debate you on this is most likely not constructive.

    You must work in labour!


  • Paul Tulloch,

    I admit I was being cute with you (Germany – France)…but you are being desperate (you have never worked).

    Since you’re curious: I have never been part of a union, have never been employed by, nor have I received a single penny from any union-related business.

    You have anecdotes? I have so many more.
    I can tell you what an Amazon employee told me about Canada Post, what a weight-lifter told me about policing as a career, what motivated a mover to try out for the fire fighters, what a retired Indo-Canadian gangster mused about the BCNU (yup, didn’t expect that), why a software engineer switched to teaching…and the list goes on.

    Of course, I would never try to convince anyone of anything based on anecdotes (though curious to hear how you polled Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Ottawa).

    You clearly have been taken with Nanos’ work for the anti-union crowd…and the subsequent writeup for the papers. We can discuss the raw data which showed an inconvenient contradiction invalidating most of his conclusions.

    Then we can relate that to conservative pollster Greg Lyle’s recent question on governments role promoting unions (pretty interesting).

    But of course, that discussion might not be as constructive as your performance of Hamlet…

  • To all,

    I can’t resist…

    2008 Angus Reid (1,007 Canadians):
    “Labour unions are a necessary and important part of Canadian society”

    2008 Nanos (1,000 Canadians):
    “Unions are still as relevant today as they have ever been”

    The reason I’ve contrasted these is because Nanos has been cheerleading for WildRose’s labour policies in Alberta…and I expect him to show up in Ontario backing Hudak.

    Normally, the polls should be within a couple of points of each other. In this case, we have a dramatic 10%+ gap.

    This means that the question cannot be reliably polled…or someone is skewing their numbers.

    Nanos is commissioned by an explicitly anti-union organization (Labour Watch), Angus Reid is not. Make what you will of that.

  • The recent Bill 78 in Quebec has instituted “right-to-study”; regardless of the majority vote on a student strike, injunctions have been forcing colleges to operate for a handful of students and strict punishments for those who try to block the picket-line-crossers are now the law.

  • Dan

    Sorry but you are missing a reality here- there are haves and have nots and sadly the have-nots that work have proven time and time again to be non-union.

    There is and always has been a balancing act between these two groups. During the post war compromise, many non-union were benefiting from union gains, as full employment were a lot closer to the political goal- thereby non-union were free riding off the gains made by unions gain.

    That spillover, has over the past 30 years been on the decline and hence the increasing rift between these two groups. Mainly due to the increasing precariousness of work and income polarization.

    And that is exactly what Hudak will target. They know this rift has become a large chasm within the working class. No sane politician would bring out a platform of union-busting if they did not do their research and find some resonance with the voters. So whatever polls you are quoting fine, but something is going on in the Hudak camp that makes them believe that a Wisconsin style union smashing electoral platform is viable.

    It is the nirvana of the right, and given these days of decline in Ontario, they will be the first to kick away at labour when the opportunity arises. And to me the opportunity is right now- labour is weaker than usual because of the manufacturing purge because of the high dollar. Public sector unions are on the defensive because of the ideological wanderings of Harper and the deficit hysteria he has drummed up, (and McGuinty fell right into it as well).

    Labour can fight back, and it can survive and who knows if the economy gets any worse, they could actually turn tables and make some gains here. But it is political capacity that is in dire need right now. How do you get that- well you need to be much stronger organizationally. Things like the CAW-CEP merger, new forms of organizing such as the unemployed, retirees, students etc.

    So you are doing nobody any favours by flying the flag that things are okay and just fine. THEY ARE NOT.

  • I have sympathy with the “keep it simple” argument. I recall Michael Moore saying something along those lines when Obama introduced his stimulus bill. Moore said, “Stimulus? What the heck is stimulus? We should be calling this the jobs-and-tax-cuts bill.” His point was that “stimulus” is something that economists debate; jobs and tax cuts are things that people vote for.

    “Rand formula” proponents are practically conceding the debate to the anti-union faction. Tim Hudak and others have successfully crafted an image of the average union worker as lazy, entitled and dangerous to the economy. But as Paul Krugman pointed out recently, attacks on unions are really attacks on police officers, fire fighters and teachers. That’s the narrative the PEF should run with. It’s the only one that matters to the public.

  • Dan Tan wrote:

    “Past polling shows most Canadians are agnostic and ignorant on the issue of labour unions. They do not have firmly held beliefs, either way.”

    then quoted:

    “2008 Angus Reid (1,007 Canadians):
    ‘Labour unions are a necessary and important part of Canadian society’

    2008 Nanos (1,000 Canadians):
    ‘Unions are still as relevant today as they have ever been’

    Um, what’s your point, other than most Canadians are, as you stated (correctly, I think) ignorant and agnostic about unions?

    As for what to do, I’d suggest having a look at Sam Gindin’s ideas:


  • Todd,

    You have done this sort of thing twice now.

    You quote some lines from a previous post, ignoring others. Then you ask a sarcastic question, for which an answer already exists in the lines you chose to ignore.

    Paul believed attitudes to be firm. Presenting the polling numbers had the dual purpose of challenging his assertion – and – questioning Nanos’ monopoly on the answer (which, IMO, informed Paul’s pessimism).

    That was the point.

  • ————
    Paul Tulloch said: “No sane politician would bring out a platform of union-busting if they did not do their research and find some resonance with the voters.”

    No, no, no, no, NO!

    Tim Hudak is NOT presenting a platform of “union busting”. That is how your biased political mind has chosen to interpret it.

    To the average Joe/Jane, Hudak has merely provided an economic growth strategy. In the process, he has associated unions with economic stagnation.

    To challenge him, you must provide another economic growth strategy. And in the process, associate unions with economic strength.

    That is why the examples of Sweden & Finland are so important (unionization rates 50%+, strong economies). Average people already have positive images of those nations. Most have negative impressions of Hudak’s cherished “rust belt states” and “American south”.


    P.S. If you want “conservative research” on public opinion (and unions), read this article I wrote for Greg Fingas’ website. You will see just how significant the “agnostics” really are in our society:

  • Dan wrote:

    “You quote some lines from a previous post, ignoring others.”

    That’s because what I’m getting at doesn’t require me to quote the entire post.

    And my question wasn’t sarcastic beyond why you wanted to state the obvious as something not.

    “Presenting the polling numbers had the dual purpose of challenging his assertion – and – questioning Nanos’ monopoly on the answer”

    Except that the questions that you seem to find vested with such meaning don’t have a similar shine to me (or to Paul, evidently).

    I’ve seen plenty of evidence drawn from American polls over a few years that, although polls can give a careful reader some important information, they can also reveal contradictory feelings and notions inside people about the very same topic ie ideology, preconceptions, and prejudices at work. Taking polls at face value (and accusing pollsters of bias without some _really_ good evidence) isn’t the best way of going about using them.

  • @Dan- All I can say is I hope you are right, but I think you are missing the Iceberg- similar to what the US went through over to the past 20 years of union decline.

    It is so bad in the US that even a Left Anti Union movement has broken our recently!

    I hope we do not get to that point here in Canada, but with rose coloured views like Dan’s then we just might.

    And the people supporting an Anti-union left are not a bunch of crank right wingers. Just look at the names.


  • Paul,

    Here is what Professor Nelson Wiseman thought:
    “The NDP appears to be in its death throes, an expiring force in Canadian politics. It is intellectually bankrupt, financially broke, and reeling politically.”

    Here is what Canadians thought about that:

    So spare me the musings of lazy academics and journalists. Their employers will reward their cowardice, but future generations will condemn it.

  • Todd,

    For the huge discrepancy between results, I presented “bias” as one possible reason – among others.

    The other possibility (which you conveniently redacted) was: “…or the question cannot be reliably polled”.

    Your last paragraph is merely a support for this other possibility.

    As this is the third time you’ve done this sort of thing, culture & tradition demand some dramatic gesture…this will do: http://online.wsj.com/media/0925pod14.jpg

  • Sorry, I’m not black.

    Are you supposed to be the fat guy with the big mouth?

    “Nanos is commissioned by an explicitly anti-union organization (Labour Watch), Angus Reid is not. Make what you will of that.”

    I’d rather make of you from what you’ve written: a conspiranoid schmuck who likes to read what he’s written.

  • This is a weird discussion.
    Near as I can make out you’re both pro-union, so there’s no real need for everyone to be so hostile.
    Now, I don’t like Dan Tan; I dislike some of his positions and I find his approach pointlessly smug, abrasive and snarky. I kind of wish he wasn’t on our side.
    But, in this particular case, Paul I think you’re misinterpreting what he’s saying. He’s making an argument about rhetoric and framing. His position is not that what you’re saying is wrong, but that your frame is weak and your rhetoric likely to be unpersuasive to the average voter–that in effect you are conceding too much ground.
    Now I’m not sure that’s really relevant to this article, which is a blogpost which fairly explicitly preaches to the choir; it’s a description of the situation for the information of people already more or less on side, rather than an argument pitched to the average voter. So the issue of how vigorous the frame is, is not really the point here; this article is not really political messaging.
    But Tan’s not actually wrong either, IMO. If one were to write something about Hudak’s position for a general readership, then this would not be the way to convince them. It doesn’t really matter whether a majority of people are convinced that unions are bad, or whether their opinions are confused, in flux, or neutral. Unless you’re going to simply give up and not bother arguing in favour of unions at all, if you’re going to do it you need to make strong arguments and frame the debate in ways that makes your strong arguments central and makes their arguments seem like nitpicking, rather than the other way around.

    So, like, in the case of Hudak’s “right to work” approach:
    Hudak argues roughly “We need to get rid of the Rand formula for the sake of the individual freedom of workers not to be in unions if they don’t want to” but the often-expressed subtext is “And this is OK because unions are bad for growth and union employees are unproductive and lazy and kill jobs”.

    A counterargument of “This individual freedom schtick is merely a cover for drastic union-bashing” doesn’t help there. It’s true, but the Hudak and media rejoinder would be basically “Yeah, so what?” as long as they can get away with the frame “unions are bad and union workers are what is wrong with the economy”.
    A true counter would, as Tan suggests, have to be along the lines of “A good economy is one that produces useful things, has low unemployment and high paying, stable jobs. Countries with high union density are like that (e.g. the usual suspects), and when Canada had higher union density it also produced more useful things and had better paying, more stable jobs. If we want an economy where people can make a living, we need unions.
    The only reason unions are under attack in this country is not for ordinary people’s benefit, but because they get in the way of profits for parasitic banksters and billionaires–the unions are one of the last frail defenses you have against the onslaught of the 1%, the real economy-wrecking trough-swilling backroom boys who buy their laws wholesale from the Conservatives.”
    Now that’s a frame.

    On a side note, Paul I think you have deeply mistaken the nature of that Counterpunch article. It describes nobody who is actually against labour. Rather, it describes a grassroots-based challenge against certain complacent centrist Democrat-connected union bosses over their wimpy tactics. It appears that establishment guys have trashed these critiques as “anti-union”, when they are to the contrary a call for more militant, ground-level action with greater independence from the basically anti-union Democratic party, which hasn’t been “left” for decades.

  • The Purple Library Guy,

    I remember our one & only interaction.

    That was on March 4 2012, when I presented my NDP leadership vote predictions:
    (No longer cached on Greg Fingas’ website)

    You were offended by this line:
    “Nash & Topp are drawing from the same pool of supporters. Namely, self-perceived puritans & organized labour. They’ll split that vote until they can’t anymore…and then Topp will move on because he’s slightly more charismatic than Nash.”

    I only bring this up because Paul Tulloch accused me of being employed by unions.

  • Paul is correct that the union movement should look for fellow travelers amongst the “occupy/environment/arts/music” crowd, that is, the “latte left”, because not only is the wine and cheese set increasingly populated by (public) union members, but union interests are increasingly in direct conflict with the agenda of anti-poverty advocates.

    In the US, advocates looking to expand Medicaid for the poor looked to removing the tax deductibility of employer provided healthcare as a revenue raiser but unions, including private sector unions, strongly opposed this.

    The union as an economic phenomenon is a monopoly. Give those who contract with unions the right to freely contract for labour services like most individuals consumers and what remains? This monopoly is tolerated solely because of the notion that the “victim” is the fat cat capitalist and the beneficiary the hard working labourer. But today’s hard working underclass is typically non-unionized and would be more than happy to compete on price for their labour with government employers in particular, at least until they had “joined the club,” and the “victim” is other social services which are squeezed by the amount of taxpayer income going to public sector pension funds.

    Fact is, a “war on unions” would not increase poverty. The unionized are well enough off that they could still get by even if their benefits were dialed back. It would more likely decrease poverty as it could ease the pressure on other social spending.

  • By the way, Jim, the Wildrose Party dropped “Alliance” from its name some time ago.

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