Right-to-work battle brewing (Editor's notes)

What happens in Canada could hinge on outcome of next Ontario election

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 strip the unions’ ability to force employees to join and pay dues as a condition of employment — in Canada, it would mean an end to the Rand formula. The formula states “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 held power since 2003. Voters can be a fickle bunch and tend to like to see change after a decade or so. Combine Liberal fatigue with a scandal over the cancellation of power plants expected to cost Ontario taxpayers $1 billion and it’s a pretty good recipe for government turnover.

If voters reject the Liberals and lean right, the provincial Tories could bring in right-to-work legislation that alters the employment landscape and sets up labour relations dominoes to fall across Canada.

I recently moderated 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 is up on www.hrreporter.com and we’ll be featuring an in-depth look at what was discussed in the Jan. 27, 2014, issue. More videos will follow.)

During the conversation, Jamie Knight, a labour lawyer and partner at Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti in Toronto, called right-to-work the “elephant in the room.” He said there has been an appetite for weakening labour-friendly laws — such as Bill 85, which passed in Saskatchewan earlier this year.

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

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

“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.

“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,” said a recent report from CIBC World Markets.

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, right-to-work could either create an economic boom or prove 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 wants to implement right-to-work legislation doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Earlier this year, Richard Charney, Toronto-based global leader for employment and labour at law firm Norton Rose, wrote a guest commentary in the pages of Canadian HR Reporter. His opinion? It’s “not likely” to 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 out swinging against right-to-work. 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 some political leaders are vowing to enact anti-union measures, unions are rebranding 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.

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