By Christine McLaughlin
The Hudak Conservatives have unveiled plans to bring so-called “Right to Work” legislation to Ontario. Following in the footsteps of American Republicans, Ontario’s Conservatives are seeking to unravel an agreement that has maintained relative labour peace in the province for over half a century. This has been painted as a ‘progressive’ measure that will ‘modernize’ what have been branded as ‘outdated labour laws.’ According to Tim Hudak, the goal is to “modernize our labour laws to get them out of the 1940s and 1950s and to 2012 and beyond.”
It is telling that history for Hudak here begins in the 1940s. To extend any further back would reveal this as the deeply regressive measure it is, which would pivot Ontario backwards to a period of limited working rights with lower pay and fewer protections in the workplace.
Orwellian-phrased ‘Right to Work’ legislation would strip the postwar accord that has informed Canadian labour relations since the end of the Second World War. More specifically, it would eliminate “the Rand Formula” in Ontario, a product of deep workplace discord that led to the growth of unionism, especially from the late 1930s into the postwar period. In an era of unprecedented strike waves, the Rand Formula was offered as a solution to quell workplace strife and bring industrial peace to Ontario. This formula emerged from a 1946 Ford Windsor strike when Justice Ivan Rand was tasked with finding a compromise between management and workers. Organized workers were given security through the ‘check-off,’ whereby union dues would be automatically deducted from unionized workers’ pay. Rand argued that since all organized workers benefited from their collective agreement, they should all be required to pay into it the organization that enabled these benefits.
The Rand Formula also deeply limited union power, making all strikes during the period covered by a collective agreement illegal and cementing management authority in the workplace. It made union leaders responsible for policing their membership, and subjected both unions and members to heavy fines in the event of illegal strike action. It initially spread unevenly through voluntary agreements between employers and workers, but it became law in Ontario in 1980 under the minority Progressive Conservative government of Bill Davis.
The Rand Formula has been a subject of intense debate among scholars of labour relations. Critics point to the bureaucratizing effects of a settlement that distanced union leaders from their membership, and drew workers into a legal industrial complex that hampered militancy in the workplace. Others point to the much-needed security this compromise offered, serving as an engine of growth in wages, benefits, health and safety in the workplace, and other important services for working people.
Few progressives, however, would harken for a return to the decades leading into the ‘dirty thirties,’ when the power imbalance in Ontario’s workplaces left more working people vulnerable to abuse, old age, injury and exploitation.
Progressive politics do not unravel past progressive measures; they should enhance and build on them. Even some staunch anti-unionists will admit that unions were necessary back in the 1930s and 1940s – does it not follow that a return to this legislative environment would also reinforce the conditions that made these vehicles for worker empowerment necessary to begin with?
Supporters of ‘Right to Work’ legislation tell us we need to be ‘competitive.’ But what game are we playing, and who gets to set the rules? Are we going to ‘race to the bottom,’ becoming a cheap source of disposable labour? Or would we like to maintain our competitive edge as a desirable place to live and work, where millions from around the world have vied to enjoy relatively widespread ‘middle-class’ living standards? It is no coincidence that, like the Rand Formula, this broadly based prosperity is also a product of the postwar period; the former fueled the latter. A person’s ability to spend has long been dependent on their ability to earn.
Eradicating the Rand Formula would have a catastrophic effect on unions, and could lead to labour chaos in Ontario. As one editorial keenly opines, many citizens would undoubtedly opt out of paying taxes if given the opportunity; never mind that this could lead to the collapse of civil society. How many would not see the regressive results of these actions until they had already been realized?
The Hudak Conservatives’ proposed changes to labour legislation offers Ontarians little to “look forward” to when it threatens to catapult us back to a time when we had little to no rights in the workplace, lower wages, few benefits and poorer living conditions. This proposed great leap backwards serves as another example of why the “Progressive” doesn’t belong in Hudak’s Conservative Party.
Christine McLaughlin is a PhD Candidate in History at York University and Co-Editor of ActiveHistory.ca.