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Canadian right-to-work battle evaporates

But unions have a rocky road ahead, a point driven home by the Volkswagen vote

By Todd Humber

Just a few weeks ago, it looked like the next Ontario election would be the front lines in the battle to bring American style right-to-work legislation to Canada.

Tim Hudak, leader of the provincial Tories, vowed to enact the law — which essentially gives workers the right to opt out of joining a union and paying dues in unionized shops — in the province if his government was elected. (Ontario currently has a minority Liberal government.)

But the plan seems to be no more than a flash-in-the-pan, as Hudak has almost completely retreated from talking about it. His hand was forced, according to most reports, by party insiders who thought the move was an election killer and other Tories who simply didn’t think it would create jobs and boost the economy.

Dave Brister, who was slated to be the Progressive Conservative (PC) candidate for the riding of Essex, tweeted: “I support Tim Hudak and I don’t support right to work. So now what happens? Let’s see. I’m not the loudest — just the first to say it.”

Hudak promptly dumped Brister.

But criticism continued to mount. Talk of right-to-work from Hudak has been muted in favour of talk of “modernizing” labour laws in the province. But trust one thing — the PC’s anti-union stance will still be a big part of the campaign. But if right-to-work laws are going to spread north and get the chance to survive a guaranteed Charter challenge, a new front will have to open up — we’re looking at you, Alberta.

But the removal of the right-to-work from the political debate doesn’t mean unions are going to have easy sailing — particularly private-sector ones.

Just look at what happened last week in Tennessee, where Volkswagen workers rejected a hard push by the United Auto Workers (UAW) to organize in a 712-626 vote. UAW president Bob King himself said the future of his union rests on its ability to organize workers at foreign car plants in the United States.

It hasn’t had much success on that front, and a Reuters article on the Volkswagen vote said the “stinging defeat… could accelerate the decades-long decline of the United Auto Workers.”

The Volkswagen UAW vote was the subject of intense scrutiny south of the border. Volkswagen remained neutral in the vote, but plenty of outside voices weighed in. One of the most surprising was Senator Bob Corker, who said the automaker would reward workers with a new product to build if they rejected the UAW’s advances.

Volkswagen denied that was true, but the damage may have been done. Regardless, it’s a significant loss for an embattled union movement that was desperate for a big win.

The UAW, no doubt, has to reinvent itself in order to remain relevant. On this side of the border, its counterpart — the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union — has already undergone that transformation. Last year, it merged with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) union to form Unifor, a mega-union with a mega-mandate to organize workers and industries that have not been traditional targets for unionization.

It’s still very early days for Unifor, but it has yet to make any major shockwaves in the Canadian labour market. It’s working tirelessly behind the scenes, but it has yet to score a significant, landscape-altering win.

Perhaps its biggest test will come shortly, as Unifor attempts to unionize 7,000 Toyota employees. This vote is as critical to Unifor as the Volkswagen vote was to the UAW.

In an interview with Canadian Labour Reporter, Unifor president Jerry Dias struck a confident tone, and thinks the time is ripe to absorb the workers into the union movement. Previous attempts have gone almost nowhere.

Toyota, of course, is striking the same chord it always has, pointing to the fact it has never laid off a full-time team member in Canada despite some difficult economic conditions, according to Greig Mordue, Toyota’s general manager of corporate planning.

"We don’t need a third party to tell us how to manage our company," Mordue told Canadian Labour Reporter.

The Toyota vote won’t make or break Unifor. But it will provide a very interesting glimpse into the appetite of non-unionized workers for third-party representation.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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