In Canada, the Right to Strike Exists… Until you Try to Use it

Postal workers, power workers, teachers and bus drivers are recent victims of a disturbing trend – loss of the right to strike. In the case of members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, federal Liberal back-to-work legislation on November 27 put a halt to five weeks of rotating strikes. Up to then, no cross-country work stoppage occurred, and there was only a minor mail backlog. On December 20, the Conservative Ontario government passed a no strike law aimed at 6,000 Power Workers’ Union members who run hydroelectric stations and nuclear plants; this occurred before any job action began. Back in the Spring, a Liberal Ontario regime broke the strike of teaching assistants, members of CUPE Local 3903, at York University. In May 2015, Queen’s Park stopped secondary school teachers from exercising their ‘right to strike’ at three school boards. In 2009, the government imposed a back-to-work law on striking Toronto Transit Commission workers.

According to the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights (CFLR), a serious erosion of the fundamental and universal human right to organize into a union, and to engage in free collective bargaining is spreading. Federal and provincial governments in Canada passed 224 pieces of legislation since 1982 that have limited, suspended or denied collective bargaining rights.

Authorities restricted the right of unions to organize. Collective agreements have been torn up. Negotiated wages and benefits have been taken away. Employers’ proposals have been legislatively imposed on workers and the right to strike removed. Both the private and the public sectors have been hit.

The CFLR finds that:

There has been a major change in the frequency and severity of back-to-work legislation in Canada in recent years. Since the early 1980s, the number of instances of back-to-work legislation is higher than any other period in the history of labour relations in Canada. In the last three decades, the federal government alone passed 19 pieces of back-to-work legislation while provincial governments across the country have enacted 73 pieces of back-to-work legislation.

Most of this legislation (50 of the 92 pieces of legislation) not only forced workers back to work after taking strike action, but also arbitrarily imposed settlements on the striking workers. In 2011 postal workers were locked out, then had terms and conditions imposed on them.

A common phenomenon in the public sector throughout the 1980s and 1990s has been the suspension of collective bargaining rights. With the exception of Saskatchewan, public sector workers across Canada gained the right to collective bargaining in the decade between 1967 and 1977. In the three decades that followed, most public sector workers have had their collective bargaining rights suspended anywhere from three to ten years.

There have been 53 pieces of legislation passed in the federal Parliament and provincial legislatures that have suspended the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.

Since 1982, there have also been 80 instances where federal and provincial labour laws have been amended to further restrict unions’ ability to organize and bargain collectively. Nine pieces of legislation have actually denied certain categories of workers the right to join a union and nine pieces of legislation have restricted the certification process hurting the labour movement’s ability to organize the unorganized. There have been 62 instances where the federal and provincial governments passed legislation that restricted the rules and/or scope of bargaining, denied the right to strike and limited the mechanisms available for settlement of disputes or allowed for greater government and/or employer interference in internal union matters.”

In a recent news release, Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario asked:

When are we going to see ‘back to the bargaining table’ legislation forcing employers to deal with workers’ representatives fairly and appropriately?

Clearly, the bosses’ agenda is not about bargaining. It is about squeezing workers, and using the law to deprive workers of a legal recourse. Thus, what pressure can workers hope to apply?

Traditionally, less than two per cent of collective bargaining led to a legal strike. Today, even that low incidence is being reduced to a rarity.

Why? Because the capitalist rulers have fewer crumbs to offer. They seek to solve their deep economic problems on the backs of working people. Conservative labour leaders and cowardly social democrats compound the problem by acquiescing to concessions demanded by management. General Motors, after milking the public for billions of dollars in aid, is planning to shut down auto production in Oshawa – and seems to be getting away Scot-free.

What is the solution? Workers should look to history to see how the first unions were built, and how improvements were won. May 1, 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike.

A general strike – now there’s an idea whose time has come again. History teaches that struggle decides, not the law.

(The above article was compiled by Barry Weisleder.)