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Contradictions, openings and danger signals for labour.

IN OCTOBER 2015, the defeat of the hated Harper government was rightly celebrated by the labour movement. Justin Trudeau's Liberals promised to repeal the Tory anti-union legislation and develop a constructive relationship with the union movement. Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) president Hassan Youssuf commented, "we look forward to working to ensure the Trudeau government delivers on the real change it has promised for working Canadians."

The president of UNIFOR, the largest private-sector union in Canada, praised Trudeau and invited him to speak at the union's recent convention.

Clearly, Trudeau's government is different than Harper's, but the Liberals have a mixed record of dealing with the working class and the union movement. While maintaining a public face of friendliness and implementing many policy changes from those of the Tories, the government remains firmly committed to neoliberalism, corporate globalization and trade liberalization, and deepening deregulation and privatization. While attempting to straddle the interests of Indigenous peoples, those involved in fossil fuels (labour and capital) and environmentalists, it remains committed to further development of oil and gas. And while repealing some of the worst elements of the Tory anti-labour agenda, there are severe limitations to their commitments to labour. One wonders if the principal effect has been to end the dreaded Tory hard line against unions--to open up potential for change--or, more precisely, to create an environment of co-optation and weakening of the union movement's autonomy and capacity to develop its own independent approach to Canada's economy.

The balance sheet

Trudeau's government repealed bills C-377 and C-525, which had placed restrictions on unionization and called for public disclosures of detailed information, geared toward making it more difficult to engage in political education, lobbying and mobilization. It also repealed C-59, which gave the government powers to override collective bargaining in the public sector. It remains committed to repealing C-4 (and Trudeau announced his intentions to do so at the UNIFOR convention), which contains a number of anti-union provisions, but has not done so yet.

On the other hand, it defeated an anti-scab bill and refused to apply a living wage to the federal sector.

There have also been modest improvements to the Employment Insurance regime, the Canada Pension Plan (restoring the age of eligibility for Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement to 65) and raising the contributions and benefits of CPP for future retirees, as well as commitments to improve health care funding for the provinces.

However, articles written by Doug Nesbitt (, Jordy Cummings ( and Teuila Fuatai (, reveal a list of disappointments and real differences cited both long and deep. These include the refusal to replace Harper's appointments to key positions, such as the leadership of Canada Post; not defending the pensions and livelihoods of Local 1005 Steelworkers (formerly of Stelco/US Steel); Temporary Foreign Workers plans that respond to the needs of employers; a refusal to fundamentally reform El in favour of workers; plans to bring in pipeline projects in B.C. and elsewhere, and a fundamental commitment to fossil-fuel development as well as military support for Saudi Arabia and support for the new cold-war orientation in Eastern Europe.

The government also introduced a bill permitting the conversion of existing defined benefit (DB) pension plans and their accrued benefits--even existing retiree benefits--into insecure "target" benefits that can be reduced if funding targets are missed. Bill C-27 would only apply to part of the federal jurisdiction, but it could allow the conversion of existing DB pensions into defined contribution plans and hammer a further nail in the coffin of defined benefit plans in both the public and private sectors. As well, the pension improvements implemented by the government are a far cry from what would be needed to transition towards a robust public pension system that could eventually replace reliance on pension plans provided by employers.

No relief from neoliberalism

Equally germane is the Trudeau government's rock-solid commitment to neoliberal economic solutions in the current economic slow-growth era. It is evidenced by an almost Pollyannaish praise of trade agreements (read: investor rights/export dependency), such as the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, despite the growing revulsion to this slavish approach across the global north. And even the promise of increased infrastructure spending is tied to a larger agenda of privatization (selling off airports and other assets) and Public-Private Parnerships (P3S). Both are critical components of the government's economic strategy.

The entire set of proposals for the $35-billion infrastructure bank includes managing and shaping investment through the private sector. And this goes beyond the usual forms of P3S currently touted by municipal, provincial and federal governments. According to a Nov. 13 article in the Globe and Mail, "Ottawa to make 'unprecedented' appeal for private investment in infrastructure":

"Projects envisioned by the bank would go beyond traditional P3S, in which a private firm or consortium is contracted to build and maintain a public asset. The difference would be an increased focus on attracting partners who would make an equity investment in the project in exchange for a negotiated return."

This clearly is meant to align with similar initiatives across the world, making infrastructure projects in the global south part of the target. Aside from the added costs to cover investor returns, what would this do to our collective capacities to shape the direction and focus of new infrastructure investments, not to mention the wages and working conditions of those who build and maintain them?

And then there is the appalling statement by Finance Minister Bill Morneau that young people will just have to get used to "job churn" (that is pre-carity) for the rest of their working lives. "How do we train and retrain people as they move from job to job to job? Because it's going to happen. We have to accept that." No wonder Trudeau faced a wall of young activists' backs when he spoke at a recent CLC Youth forum, and had to endure comments such as, "hypocrite" and signs demanding that he keep his promises. The reality is that, in order to transform the dismal job market for younger and older workers, it would require a massive state regulatory intervention that is completely at odds with the premises of the Trudeau agenda.

Brokerage versus independence

The relationship of the union movement with the federal government is rife with potential contradiction. To what extent do unions argue for the particular interests of their members--or even their employers--and develop brokerage relationships with governments to further those interests? To what extent do unions argue with and challenge governments in the name of the collective political interests of the larger working class and progressive social partners (like environmental activists, the indigenous anti-colonialist movement, anti-racism, etc)? How do ongoing relationships between the labour movement and existing governments limit or challenge a union's willingness or ability to build an alternative political orientation or relationships with other political parties (whether the NDP or potential Left alternatives)? How do unions relate to the government as their employer (as in the public sector)? And, finally, how much does the labour movement's relationship with Trudeau reflect its own limited political orientations (such as accepting continued dependence on fossil fuels with just moderate environmental limitations) all within an overall framework of continental and global capital mobility and trade liberalization and concerns with employer competitiveness?

There are several examples of unions dealing with some of these contradictions in different ways. UNIFOR organizes and lobbies against the TPP, CETA and free-trade agreements, but develops its auto policy in partnership with employers. It sees its relationship with Trudeau as a way to reflect its corporatist interests and channel subsidies to the industry. It maintains a more mediated but real relationship with the NDP, yet flirts with the Liberals in all kinds of other ways.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers maintains a more independent policy and political stance and furiously lobbied the Liberals to intervene against Canada Post's threats and attacks. Trudeau's government perhaps did play a role in the settlement behind the scenes. CUPW seeks to influence the government's stand on Canada Post, yet maintain its alternative perspective on the institution.

Over the course of Trudeau's mandate, different unions will interact with the Liberal government in different ways. Some might achieve positive short-term outcomes, while others will reflect and reinforce unions' limited brokerage-politics approach. There will be no rupture with the widespread acceptance of the limits imposed on workers by neoliberal capitalism and their dependence on employers. Obviously, having open channels with a ruling government is better than implacable opposition, but it isn't by itself a solution to the needs of labour. The dismal reality is that the only existing alternative political party--the NDP--is incapable of providing a real challenge to neoliberal policies and strategy. Add to this the retrograde pressures of the new Trump administration reinforcing the worst aspects of the Trudeau agenda and it's clear that difficult challenges loom for Canadian labour.

Making sense of how to deal with the Trudeau government is fundamental to the Canadian labour movement's ability to address the deeper crises and challenges it faces. The costs of not doing so are all too apparent in the upsurge in right-wing populism around the western world and its increasing appeal to many working-class people and union members.

Caption: BELOW LEFT: Unifor president Jerry Dias with Justin Trudeau at Unifor Conference. Photo posted on Aug. 24, 2016.

BELOW RIGHT: Postal workers protest at Trudeau's Montreal office, Aug. 6, 2016. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

Caption: Youth turn their backs on Prime Minister Trudeau as he addresses the Canadian Labour Congress National Young Workers' Summit in Ottawa on Oct. 25,2016. By Fred Chartrand/ The Canadian Press.

Caption: Filipino-Canadian workers, Toronto, May 2016; photo posted on
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Title Annotation:Short CHANGE
Author:Rosenfeld, Herman
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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