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Resisting Bill C-377 and the attack on union rights

Ritch Whyman

January 2, 2013

Just as the state of Michigan, the birth place of industrial unions in north America, was passing anti-union “right to work” legislation, the Federal Tories were passing Bill C-377—forcing unions to publicly report their finances and the salaries of higher level union officials. This is part of a massive attack on unions aiming to end the Rand Formula, and it’s critical to remember the historical lessons of union struggles to build resistance to the new assaults.

The claim is that because union dues, like professional fees paid by doctors, lawyers, engineers etc. are deductable, that unions benefit from the public purse and therefore should be accountable to the non dues paying public.

This of course is just a barely hidden sleight-of-hand to attack unions and workers organizations. The bill never suggested that professional associations who have the same tax benefit, or religious organizations, face the same policy. Nor do corporations that receive large tax breaks and incentives face similar legislation.

Furthermore, every union is governed by a constitution and almost all have clauses that make regular financial reporting to the members mandatory. In many provinces the labour laws force annual audits to be reported and made available to the membership.

Bill C-377

Bill C-377 is designed to do two things: feed into the ongoing war against workers, and force unions to spend money and expose themselves financially to employers.

Unions will now have to publicly report how much cash reserves they have, how much they have in strike funds, how much they spend on organizing campaigns and more. This clearly gives employers who are fighting their employees right to unionize an upper hand. It will allow them to see what resources employees have to fight for their rights. Furthermore, it would allow employers to see how much resources employees have to strike, allowing them to wait out strikes or break unions by draining resources through the courts and arbitration.

While this bill may be ruled illegal and an unwarranted intrusion on privacy, it has set the stage for further attacks on unions. Already Tory MP Pierre Poilievre has begun to publicly raise the prospect of introducing US style “right to work” policies at the Federal level and the Ontario Tories have made the introduction of right to work a main plank of their electoral platform under leader Tim Hudak.

These attacks all have the intent of undermining the ability of workers to resist austerity and ending the current state of laws governing unions and employers, known as the Rand Formula.

Rand Formula

The Rand Formula, named after Justice Ivan Rand, was introduced in the wake of a massive strike wave in 1945 that began with the shutting of Ford in Windsor.

The “formula” basically means that where a majority of employees vote in favour forming a union at their workplace, that all employees—whether members or not—must  pay dues to the union as they benefit from gains made by the union. In essence the formula states that no employee gets a free ride.

Further the “formula’’ states that employers are to deduct dues from employees “automatically” and forward them to the union, a process known as dues check off.

This was a victory for workers as it prevented employers from starving out worker during strikes. However it also prevented workers from going on strike during the length of a collective agreement. So the rand formula was a trade off: employers were forced to recognize unions and workers were prevented from striking during a collective agreement.

This gain has allowed unions and workers to have the ability to push back against employers and collectively pool resources to challenge multinationals and big business.

Today that is under threat, and it is unclear how unions will respond.

Strategy and tactics

On one hand the NDP leadership and the leadership of major unions are putting efforts into legal challenges against C-377. Some unions have begun to raise the issue with the membership, but few unions have recognized how serious the threat is.

On the other hand some unions and activists have begun to look at what happened in the US and figure out how to better prepare not just for right to work legislation but to use that fight to strengthen the union on the shop floor.

The stark reality is that legal challenges won’t stop Harper from continuing to undermine unions and workers rights. The lesson for union activists has to be to look back at how we won the Rand Formula in the first place.

The Rand formula was won through militant action. The workers in Windsor struck against Fords’ anti-union policies and shut the plant down by mobilizing not just employees but the community. They surrounded Ford’s main plant with cars and forced the company to recognize the union.

This strike followed by those across the country forced the ruling class to back down.

If we want to stop the Tory attacks on workers and unions we need to look at what the parliamentary road did for workers in Wisconsin. There workers and allies mobilized in unheard of numbers to stop “right to work,” a huge momentum was built up and rank-and-file activists mobilized in ways not seen in years. Unfortunately the union leadership wasted this mobilization by putting its energies and resources into electoral campaigns to get Democrats elected. The Democrats refused to fight for union rights and provide an alternative to the Republicans so they lost; it was the movement from below that forced the courts to revoke anti-worker legislation.

The strategy that has the best chance of beating the Tories is the sort of strategy that won the reforms in the first place: mass militant action.

The students in Quebec, the Teachers in Chicago, workers in Greece and the indigenous Idle No More movement, show the way forward.

That’s why the first step in stopping the Tories isn’t a legal challenge, but supporting the Idle No More demos across Canada, and in Ontario mobilizing all out for the demonstrations at the Liberal Party Convention on Jan 26.

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