On September 16th, Preston Manning published an article on the recent defeat of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) at the hands of the conservative Liberal-National coalition in the Globe and Mail. Left-wing governments destroy healthy economies, he told us, they 'binge' on stimulus spending, are soft on unions, govern badly and can’t manage environmental policy.
Never mind Manning’s false characterization of economic mismanagement by the left, or his convenient exclusion of the many failures, social and economic, of the laissez-faire policies of the right — his analysis of the political lessons from the Australian election simply miss the mark. Manning was puzzled as to why, in 2007, the Australian electorate massively rejected "the able leadership of (conservative) John Howard," electing Kevin Rudd and the ALP by a large majority.
Howard and his conservative coalition were defeated because of Work Choices, the full-frontal legislative war they launched against unions and the working public. Howard acknowledged this was the reason for their defeat, and resigned as leader. When Kevin Rudd's Labor Party won the 2007 election, one of his first acts was to repeal the hated law.
Curiously, Manning urges Ontario voters in particular to take note of Australia’s conservative rebound. Mr. Hudak and his Tories sound a lot like the Howard government before its defeat in 2007, blaming the working public and their unions for the knock-on effects of the ethical and economic failures of the Harper government. A closer look at Australia’s Work Choices law, and its effects, may give us some idea of where Hudak wants to take us.
John Howard explained that the goal of Work Choices was to transform every working person into a private contractor who bargained individually for the sale of their labour. To make that happen, the coalition set out to implode the historic consensus supporting the welfare state. Employers were allowed to fire unionized workers who refused to leave the union. They were also allowed to force employees to sign individual contracts including conditions below the legally-established minimum standards. Protection against unfair dismissal disappeared for workers in companies employing less than 100 workers; dismissal at will became common.
Furthermore, Australian states lost their own industrial relations systems, all collapsed into one federal system governed by Work Choices. Strike action became almost impossible with crushing fines for union activists and leaders. Indeed, there were only five—five!—issues that could be negotiated in collective bargaining: minimum wages, vacations, sick leave, the 38-hour work week, and unpaid parental leave. And if a union proposed to an employer that they negotiate training? Even proposing ‘prohibited content’ was illegal and the fines were stiff: up to $33,000 for a single illegal utterance.
Tim Hudak has proposed that Ontario union members should be allowed to opt out of paying union dues. This would greatly weaken unions by allowing free riders to benefit from union benefits and rights at no cost. Hudak has also said that union dues should not be used for advocacy purposes. While this would still theoretically leave unions and employers free to bargain, such laws have all but wiped out unions in the U.S. states which have adopted them.
In Australia, the war on unions had an immediate effect on work and wages. Research by economist David Peetz showed the pay gap between men and women widened further: women’s wages declined by 1.8% in the first nine months of Work Choices. Peetz's research also showed that, every month, 20,000 young people were forced to give up their minimum standards protection if they wanted a job.
If the Ontario Tories follow Hudak’s call to arms, a similar spiralling down is likely to occur here — it has in the U.S. and Great Britain. You don’t set out to destroy a union movement without destroying the decent work, wages, and safe conditions that unions have struggled successfully to win for the working public.
I wonder if delegates at last weekend’s Ontario Conservative convention have thought through what Hudak’s tub-thumping really means — not only for unions, but for Ontario as a whole. Heeding Preston Manning’s advice would be destructive.
Carla Lipsig-Mummé is Professor of Work and Labour Studies at York University and the Director of Work in a Warming World Research Programme.