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February 14, 2013

[This Blog post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on February 14, 2013]

The way that Conservative Members of Parliament like Pierre Poilievre go on about unions dues, you’d think they are familiar with the struggle of the average working person. However, unlike the millions of workers in Canada who are striving to make ends meet, Poilievre is only 33 years old and already has a full pension that he clearly doesn’t think other workers deserve.

So why are well-to-do Conservative politicians so vigorously trying to prevent vulnerable workers from advocating for a better life? The answer is simple: because they see worker-led unions as the strongest opposition to their plans to convert Canada into a low-wage economy.

Poilievre’s federal campaign is in lock-step with Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak’s White Paper on “Flexible Labour Markets” that last year pledged his party’s commitment to eliminating the mandatory collection of union dues.

The thrust of this Conservative campaign is to undermine union funding and silence workers’ collective voice. If the tactic seems familiar it is because it is the same one they have launched against women’s groups, environmental groups, and many other groups that have been critical of Conservative policies. In every case, they erect flimsy straw targets to disguise their agenda and the same is true of their attack on the Rand Formula — the funding model for unions and a cornerstone of labour relations in Canada.

They attempt to conflate the mandatory collection of union dues set out by the Rand Formula with mandatory union membership — which is a Conservative fiction. This is part of a campaign to convince workers that the Rand Formula is a violation of their rights and freedoms.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

At its heart, the Rand Formula protects an important freedom — “freedom from exploitation.” Based on an historic ruling by Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rand that struck a fair compromise to avoid protracted labour disputes, the Rand Formula requires employers to automatically deduct union dues from every workers’ paycheque in exchange for the union’s obligation to negotiate and provide fair representation for every worker in the workplace. However, no worker is forced to become a union member. In any workplace, it is the workers who decide whether or not they wish to form a union through a majority vote and together they set the rules of membership.

This is the basis of the historic compromise: membership is not mandatory, but dues are. Mandatory dues are reasonable given that the union is responsible for negotiating on behalf of all employees. Since everyone in the workplace benefits, everyone must contribute. This means that no one can freeload on the contributions of other workers. Even then, however, Rand includes provisions allowing for individual workers with religious objections to union membership to simply make charitable donations in place of paying union dues. It is fair all the way around.

In his decision, Rand explained that unions also need adequate resources in order to “redress the balance of what is called social justice.” This is because, then as now, corporations have all the power in a workplace — they can hire, fire, discipline and discharge any individual employee. Workers only have leverage if they work together and they should always have the right to do so.

This bargaining table principle applies equally to the halls of government. Concerned about Canada’s growing inequality, individual workers recognize the need to work together to counteract well-heeled corporate lobbyists and convince politicians of every stripe to promote the livelihoods of working people and their families. For that reason, workers have increasingly given their unions a mandate to launch campaigns to defend public services, good jobs, the environment, and many other public priorities.

However, when it comes to influencing public policy, workers are again at a great disadvantage. In stark contrast to the paltry five per cent of election financing that came from unions between 2004 and 2011, corporate Canada contributed a whopping 40 percent of all election funds, including $26 million to the Conservative Party.

And what did Canada’s corporate elite get in exchange for their generous support for the Harper government? Well, among other things, the passage of a new law allowing employers to pay migrant workers 15 per cent less than the going rate and another forcing employment insurance claimants to compete for lower wages.

It is no wonder that working people across the country are working together to stop Canada’s race to the bottom. For every worker in Canada, the Rand Formula is the basis of their democratic rights and promotes fairness in their workplaces. As much as Tories may try to dress up their anti-worker policies as “freedom of choice,” they are only offering Canadian workers one choice: lower wages.

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