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Dec 3, 2013

Right-to-work battle brewing

Next Ontario election could alter course of labour movement across Canada

By Todd Humber

The right-to-work movement that started south of the border is trying to march north. Whether it successfully clears customs and establishes a foothold could hinge, in large part, on the outcome of the next Ontario election.

Right-to-work laws essentially strip the ability of unions to force employees to join and pay dues as a condition of employment in unionized environments — in Canada, it would mean an end to the Rand formula.

The formula was born in 1946 after a bitter strike at Ford in Windsor, Ont. It states that “all workers who are benefitting from the contract negotiated by the union are paying their dues,” according to the Ontario Federation of Labour.

Ontario currently has a minority Liberal government, and the Liberals have led the province since 2003. Voters can be a fickle bunch, and tend to like to see change after a decade so — with the exception of Alberta and the Tories (though they were nearly picked off last time by the upstart Wildrose Party). Combine Liberal fatigue with a scandal over the cancellation of power plants expected to cost Ontario taxpayers $1 billion and you have a pretty good recipe for turnover.

Normally, a provincial election doesn’t garner much attention outside its own borders. But employers should be watching the next Ontario campaign closely. Because if the province rejects the Liberals and leans right, the provincial Tories could bring in right-to-work legislation that could alter the employment landscape and set up dominoes to fall across Canada.

I recently had the opportunity to moderate a roundtable discussion, sponsored by the Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre, on the future of labour relations in the private sector. The first video will be posted next week on, and we’ll be featuring an in-depth look at what was discussed during the roundtable in the Jan. 27, 2014, issue. More videos will follow.

During the conversation, Jamie Knight, a labour lawyer and partner with Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti in Toronto, called right-to-work the “elephant in the room.” He pointed out there has been an appetite in Canada for weakening labour-friendly laws — such as Bill 85 in Saskatchewan, which erodes some union power in the province.

Right-to-work laws have been passed in 24 jurisdictions in the United States, including some surprising states like Michigan — “which is a primary competitor for Ontario jobs,” said Knight.

Bill Murnighan, Unifor’s director of research, said the right-to-work battle is not one the labour movement plans on losing in Canada.

“We have no intention of going backwards, 70 years or more,” he said during the roundtable. “We already have democracy in the workplace. If people don’t want a union, they can decertify and they do that all the time.”

But the U.S. labour movement fought tooth-and-nail against the laws, with huge protests against anti-labour measures — largely to no avail.

And even though right-to-work isn’t the on the books anywhere in Canada, it’s already having an impact. A report last month from CIBC World Markets noted that “Canadian workers now compete with ‘right-to-work’ states south of the border. That could reduce the wage inflation pace at any given level of unemployment.”

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said the world’s economy has changed, “but the rules governing the workplace, and the way unions are run, have not.”

Depending on your viewpoint, introducing right-to-work could either create an economic boom or it could prove to be disastrous.

The boom argument: The Fraser Institute, a right-leaning think tank, says its analysis of right-to-work laws shows jurisdictions that have them see benefits including growth of 1.8 per cent and an increase in employment of one per cent. In real numbers, that would mean the creation of 57,000 jobs in Ontario and an increase in GDP of $11.8 billion. In British Columbia, the figures are 19,000 jobs and $3.9 billion.

The bust argument: The Ontario Federation of Labour said it looked at 22 right-to-work states, and found 18 of them have incomes below the national median and workers were less likely to have health insurance and pensions. It pointed to Oklahoma, where manufacturing employment has dropped every year since right-to-work laws were introduced in 2001.

But just because a government gets elected and wants to implement right-to-work legislation, it doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Earlier this year, Richard Charney, Toronto-based global leader for employment and labour for law firm Norton Rose, wrote a guest commentary in the pages of Canadian HR Reporter. His opinion? It’s “not likely” right-to-work could be adopted in Canada.

“This is in large part because in Canada, collective bargaining is constitutionally protected — in a limited fashion,” he said.

The Ontario Liberals and NDP have come up swinging against right-to-work, which could be a key election platform. Last month, Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi said the plan is an unconstitutional “job killer.” He also invoked President Barack Obama, who has described similar legislation as “the right to work for less.”

The labour movement in Canada is at a fascinating watershed — at the same time political leaders on the right are vowing to enact anti-union measures, unions are in the midst of a rebranding campaign and turning the spotlight on vulnerable workers.

Where the conversation goes will depend, in large part, on the next leader to sit at the premier’s desk in Ontario. And even then, the war won’t be over — no doubt the Supreme Court of Canada will be weighing in at some point.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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