Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Ontario: A Socialist Experiment in State Control

July 1, 1991 -

In normal times, the column by Robert Sheppard in the June 11 issue of The Globe and Mail ("NDP Gives Some a Cold Shoulder to Cry On") would have caused a lot of public resentment. These are not normal times, so there was no public outcry when Sheppard reported that proposed Ontario government policies at cabinet level are regularly first discussed with the big battalions of New Democratic Party backers, particularly organized labour.

This is the government of a premier who, upon his surprise election in September, 1990, piously proclaimed that he was the premier of all Ontarians, and public policy making in the new Ontario of the NDP would be open and democratic. He also disavowed that the NDP's close ties to organized labour would result in the adoption of blatantly partisan policies by the new government.

No doubt, defenders of the Rae government would argue that the other parties are also beholden to certain interests, especially big business, and it is now simply labour's turn to use political power for its own interests. Whatever the excuse for any kind of cozy arrangement between government and private interest groups, the reported backroom deal-making between the big players in labour and the Ontario government should cause some critical rethinking about the very nature of socialist politics.

Labour Relations as a Department of State

The close ties between Ontario government policies and the mainline trade unions should come as no surprise. These ties have been an integral part of left-wing politics for a long time. Some very recent events involving the activities of certain unions clearly serve to highlight the reality of contemporary Canadian and—especially now—Ontarian politics as practised by the political left.

Last year's settlements of the collective agreements in the steel and auto industry were accompanied by much fanfare and backpatting. Union spokespersons described the new contracts as trail-blazing documents. But it turns out that much of the improvements dealt with such items as advance notice in case of layoffs and improved severance pay. While senior employees would benefit from such provisions, the long-term impact might very well be counterproductive. Can it be denied that such provisions are making future investments and the expansion of employment more costly and, by that token, less attractive?

Unions that concentrate on making layoffs as expensive and cumbersome as possible betray a backward-looking and negative outlook rather than a hopeful and positive view of the future. In other countries, notably Japan and Germany, labour and management work together to improve their products and services in order to attract more customers—and thus protect jobs. But Canadian unions, which tend to be preoccupied with maintaining an adversarial system of collective bargaining, are more interested in the status quo than in building strong and healthy businesses.

The most remarkable thing about the new agreements in the steel and auto industry last year (described gushingly in the Toronto Star as a trend-setting "rewriting of labour's agenda") is that the so-called trail-blazing had nothing to do with imaginative improvements in the way work is performed and managed. No, union spokespersons proudly pointed out that what they had accomplished to protect income, even in the event of layoffs, would be a model for politicians to use in the passing of new legislation.

It should be readily agreed that a basic framework of legislation for the conduct of business is needed. This framework must include minimum requirements pertaining to layoffs and severance pay provisions. That workers today still do not have a priority claim on the assets of a bankrupt company for their outstanding wages is intolerable. But what people like Leo Gerard of the Steelworkers and Bob White of the Auto Workers have in mind is to let the state do what should be done in the private sector by means of a healthy cooperation between labour and management.

There is good reason to believe that the more the program of socialist-leaning unions are put in place, the less the likelihood of creating investments and thereby new employment opportunities. Unionists can crow all they like about the victories resulting from their tough collective bargaining stance. The truth is that if they continue to rely on the strike weapon and the power of the state to do what they themselves should achieve by means of a truly enlightened and imaginative approach to their role in the workplace, they will have done their members (and everybody else) a serious disservice. This is especially pertinent in view of the far-reaching changes to the Labour Relations Act of Ontario now being proposed by certain labour spokespersons.

Punishing Enemies and Rewarding Friends

The Ontario government has set out to revamp the Ontario Labour Relations Act, the law that regulates the complex field of formalized labour-management relations. Ostensibly, the purpose of these changes is to create a more level playing field and thus more fairness in labour relations.

The 95-page report by the labour representatives of the Labour Law Reform Committee speaks of "an equitable and efficient partnership between business and the labour movement." It also states that "the intense adversarial hostility between emerging bargaining units and employers must become a memory of an earlier era in Ontario's history." The labour representatives further warn that "without a legal and social environment which recognizes and accepts the legitimate role of trade unions as economic and social partners, it is not surprising that collective bargaining generates hostility rather than being a means to find the most creative solutions to pressing problems."

Despite these fine-sounding statements, a careful reading of this ambitious report betrays a strong, resentful bias against business in favour of extensive state control.

The key proposals, as put forward by the labour members of the Committee, are clearly intended to increase the power of labour unions at the expense of management and the free choice of individual workers. Not surprisingly, the management members of the Committee disagreed and wrote an opposing report. The following are some of the main proposals of the labour members:

  • A task force should be appointed to propose a method of extending collective agreements in certain designated sectors. Such automatic extensions, coupled with the current practice of compulsory union membership and support, would effectively eliminate the freedom of association of all affected workers.
  • Employers should not be allowed to contract out any work unless specifically allowed in the collective agreement.
  • It should be made illegal to hire replacement workers or even have management personnel perform work during a strike. Furthermore, secondary strikes and boycotts should be declared legal, which would give unions a great deal of additional power to enforce their demands.
  • While an organizing campaign is underway, an employer should only be allowed to discharge or discipline an employee after obtaining permission (leave) from the Labour Relations Board.
  • Employers should be forbidden to communicate with their employees during negotiations unless such communication would first be approved by the union and the union would receive equal time. Existing law already forbids employers to use intimidation or undue pressure.
  • The Ontario Labour Relations Board should be empowered to impose a collective agreement in circumstances where a party is deemed to adopt an uncompromising bargaining position. 

    These are some of the most revealing proposals, which shift more power to the side of labour at the expense of the workers* freedom of association as well as the freedom of employers to manage. Union spokespersons who advance this set of recommendations obviously want to perpetuate labour relations as a power struggle. Perhaps most importantly, these proposals represent a determined effort to enlarge the reach and power of the state in the service of a collectivistic and politicized reorganization of society. (A number of other currently contemplated changes, e.g., those regulating the role of corporate directors, pay equity, and affirmative action, have the same intent of extending state control.)

    Premier Bob Rae's attestations to the contrary, that his government will be a government of all the people and for all the people, is belied by a clear drift towards a labour-inspired and statist-oriented direction in the regulation and organization of the workplace. Those who cherish freedom based on a clear distinction between the public and the private realm have indeed reason to be troubled by the current direction of Ontario politics. But they should not be surprised. The Ontario government is simply living out its socialist beliefs.

  • This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment