lessons from wisconsin and michigan: tim hudak's threat to ontario workers is not over

Last September, when Tim Hudak announced that he intended to break Ontario's unions, it came as no surprise to labour activists. The head of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party, cynically framing the issue as one of "choice," talked about "right-to-work" - a familiar euphemism for union busting - and repealing the Rand Formula. That 1946 Canadian Supreme Court decision ensures that everyone who enjoys the benefits of belonging to a union contributes union dues, which in turn ensures that union workplaces can survive.

And that, in turn, sets a standard for all Ontario workers, union or not. This is one time the expression "a rising tide lifts all boats" - usually applied in defense of regressive economic policies - actually does apply. Union work sets a standard in any community for decent pay and humane working conditions. Unions are a bulwark against the low-wage economy that has decimated working conditions in the United States. Without unions, the gun goes off on a race to the bottom.

Union workers throughout Ontario understood the threat and mobilized. Then, two weeks ago, Hudak rescinded his right-to-work plan. Activists throughout the province cheered, and with good reason. It was a significant win. But has the threat truly passed? And can we trust Hudak? Can we take him at his word?

First, we should acknowledge why Hudak changed his tune. He didn't wake up one morning thinking, How can I make life better for the average Ontarian? He took right-to-work off the table because of our resistance. Union workers and the a good portion of the general public made so much noise about right-to-work that members of Hudak's own party began to see the issue as an election liability. In other words, the fightback worked. And now, if we consider the battle won, if pack up our tents and return to complacency, we'll be blindsided when the next threat hits.

And what is the next threat? Hudak himself said (emphasis mine):
This ‘right-to-work’ issue just doesn’t have the scope or the power to fix the issues that are threatening 100 per cent of the manufacturing jobs in Ontario. So if we’re elected, we’re not going to do it — we’re not going to change the so-called ‘Rand Formula.’ Our agenda is a lot bigger, and a lot more ambitious, than that.
Right-to-work is only one torture instrument in the shock-doctrine toolbox of this anti-labour, anti-human agenda. Consider this New York Times story, "Wisconsin's Legacy for Unions," about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's union-busting tactics:
Mr. Walker’s landmark law — called Act 10 — severely restricted the power of public-employee unions to bargain collectively, and that provision, among others, has given social workers, prison guards, nurses and other public employees little reason to pay dues to a union that can no longer do much for them. . . . . [Act 10] bars public-sector unions from bargaining over pensions, health coverage, safety, hours, sick leave or vacations. All they can negotiate is base pay, and even that is limited: any raises they win cannot exceed inflation.”
Now compare this to one slice of Hudak’s "Million Jobs Act".
The Tories say that, if elected, they would save $2 billion by freezing public sector wages across the board. In an earlier announcement, they said they would find even more savings by slashing 10,000 jobs in the education sector.
Exactly how does freezing wages and slashing jobs create jobs? Ontario is bleeding manufacturing jobs as corporations chase the higher profits gained from a low-wage workforce in countries without health, safety, and environmental protections. Instead of mounting a real response that would protect good jobs and strengthen our communities, our politicians can only talk about corporate tax cuts... which lead to cutting social services... which means squeezing the people who provide those services... who are more likely to be unionized workers. Corporate tax cuts don't create jobs. They weaken our economy.

Hudak can try any number of sneaky methods of union-busting, or, if elected, he can slap right-to-work back on the table. That's what happened in Michigan. The right-wing National Review ran a story called "The New Wisconsin," which details how Michigan quietly became a right-to-work state.
Yet before anything could happen in Michigan, the right-to-work movement needed to overcome at least one more obstacle: [Republican] Governor Rick Snyder, who had announced during his race [in 2012] that right-to-work would not be on his agenda. He called it “too divisive” — a label that must have seemed entirely fitting as he watched Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, his neighbor across Lake Michigan, suffer through 18 months of partisan strife. The unions thought they detected weakness and began to push for what would become Proposal 2, a 2012 ballot initiative to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution, effectively putting compulsory unionism beyond the reach of right-to-work reformers.

“This turned out to be a priceless gift,” says Mike Shirkey, a Republican legislator and right-to-work ringleader. “It gave us the entire summer to frame the debate and let us tell voters that we’re not out to destroy unions but to protect workers’ rights.”
Snyder was elected in November 2012, and right-to-work was passed the following month.

In Wisconsin, with unions out of the way, the drive to destroy the fruits of the labour movement has begun: state Republicans have introduced a bill to repeal the five-day work week.

Don't let this happen here.

Thanks to Michelle for her amazing research and to James for continuing to keep me informed.

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