July 2011

North of 49°
index.html Home    Print    Email

Go to www.ibew.org
Working Families Confront Canada's New Political Landscape

Few Canadians expected that the May 2 federal election would end up being one of Canada's most historic, potentially altering the country's political dynamics for years to come.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper achieved his long-sought goal of forming a majority government, while the pro-labour New Democrats rode a wave of voter dissatisfaction and economic anxiety to become the official opposition for the first time in the party's history. At the same time, the once dominant Liberals and the Quebec sovereigntist Bloc Québécois suffered massive losses that call into question their future relevance.

"It is a whole new situation for us," says First District Vice President Phil Flemming. "Harper has headed up one of the most right-wing Tory governments in our history and now he has a lot more power to carry out his agenda, but the strong showing by the New Democrats means that issues of concern to working families—health care, retirement security, and job creation—will be heard in Ottawa with a clarity we haven't had in years."

Harper's election gains mean the Tories' goal of slashing public services—previously hampered by the party's minority status—is now on the table.

"Working people will be in for some pain," says Canadian Labour Congress Political Action Director Danny Mallett. "Harper's cutbacks will mean more Canadians will be added to the unemployment rolls."

And there are signs that the Conservatives are looking to take on Canada's public sector unions, just as newly elected Republican governors have attempted to do in the United States. Employees at Canada Post are already under fire from a federal government pushing a concessionary contract that includes a two-tier wage system and cutbacks to their pension plan.

The Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank that has been closely linked with Harper and the Tories, put out a statement only days after the election encouraging Canada to follow in Wisconsin's footsteps in rolling back public worker benefits. That state was the site of massive demonstrations in the wake of controversial legislation pushed by Gov. Scott Walker that revoked collective bargaining rights for government workers.

Catherine Swift, president of the right-leaning Canadian Federation of Independent Business, has also chimed in, calling for scrapping public worker pension plans and raising the retirement age.

While threatening the benefits of public sector employees, the Conservatives are blocking efforts to expand the underfunded pension plans of Canada and Quebec.

The 2008 recession revealed the inadequacy of Canada's retirement system, with more than 1.6 million seniors still mired in poverty.

"The situation promises to get worse in the future because many young workers are not able to save enough for retirement," says CLC President Ken Georgetti in a statement.

On the jobs front, Harper's emphasis on fiscal austerity is causing concern that federal support for infrastructure investment and job creation is at risk, threatening Canada's economic recovery and adding to its manufacturing sector woes.

"Much of the job growth in construction and other fields was due to federal stimulus spending, and we need to keep that on track," Vice President Flemming says.

But despite the looming threat of cutbacks, many labour activists feel that the new political alignment in Ottawa opens up new opportunities for working families in the legislative arena.

"Sometimes the Liberals would back our issues, but in a mushy, compromising way. The NDP has spoken with much more clarity on the things that are important to workers," Mallett says.

Many of the newly elected New Democrat MPs are union members themselves, and party leader Jack Layton won rousing support at the CLC's May convention with his call to make the needs of working families Parliament's top priority.

"We've steadily grown the union vote each election cycle, with the majority of votes going to the NDP," Mallett says.

But regardless of party label, union members say the most important thing is to keep the focus on the key issues, working with members of both the majority and the opposition.

"We are reaching out to every MP," Vice President Flemming says. "And we won't let partisanship prevent us from supporting elected officials who work with us on the items that are the most important to our members. Things like support for the energy industry, more job training, tax legislation to encourage full labour mobility and policies that create jobs. Politics isn't something unions do just around election time, it is something we have to do every day." (See "Federal Elections 2011: Activists Keep Spotlight on Jobs", Electrical Worker, May 2011)