Workers' rights under attack

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Issue Overview:

The governor of Wisconsin has moved to deny public-sector unions the right to bargain collectively on behalf of members. Why should you care here in Canada? Because you are next - whether you work in the public or private sector, whether you are a member of a union or not, whether you are a worker or not.

What's happening in Wisconsin - and now in Indiana, Ohio and other states - has already started to happen here and it is about much, much more than the pay and working conditions of public servants. It is an attack on the middle class and it is an attack on democracy.

These moves, bankrolled by the U.S. billionaires behind the Tea Party movement, seek to use the financial crisis (ironically, created by the private sector and greed) to destroy the labour movement in the U.S.

The Tea Party Republicans hate the labour movement because it, alone, has the resources to stand against an outright takeover of democracy by corporations who fund the electoral campaigns of politicians who promote their views.

This is an attack on the middle class, because without the public-sector unions setting the standard of decent, living wages, corporations will be able to drive down wages in the private sector.

Don't think it could happen in Canada? Think again.

Right-wing think tanks in Canada have already started to release studies claiming to show that public-sector wages and working conditions must be reduced in these tough economic times. The think tanks, of course, are funded by Canada's Tea Party wannabes and fail to show an accurate picture, but they have been greedily snapped up by the media, who have failed to question the authorship or seek to fill in the holes.

So, the battle has begun in Wisconsin. If we join the fight there, we can weaken the forces already lining up to attack our workers and our democracy.

The situation in the U.S.

Wisconsin: Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed a bill prohibiting public-sector workers from collectively bargaining for anything but wage raises, and those raises would be limited to certain levels without going to a public referendum. It would also exempt employees from paying union dues and would make unions hold a vote annually on whether they continue to exist.

Indiana: Republican legislators have put forward legislation that would prohibit making union membership a requirement for employment in the private sector and would ban collective bargaining by public-sector workers.

Ohio: A proposed bill would end effective collective bargaining by state workers and allow alternate workers to be hired during a strike. Binding arbitration would also be ended.

What this is really about:
Conservatives in the U.S. claim that these draconian measures are all simply about state budgets facing deficits and trying to rein in spending. This is a smokescreen.

As Prof. George Lakoff, former communications guru to President Barack Obama's election campaign, said in the Huffington Post: "If the Wisconsin plan to kill the public employees' unions succeeds, then there will be little union money in the future to support democratic candidates. Conservatives will be effectively unopposed in raising campaign funding in most elections, including the presidential elections. This will mean a thoroughly conservative America in every issue area."

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times: "Gov. Scott Walker claims that he needs to pass his bill to deal with the state's fiscal problems. But his attack on unions has nothing to do with the budget. In fact, those unions have already indicated their willingness to make substantial financial concessions - an offer the governor has rejected. What's happening in Wisconsin is, instead, a power grab - an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy."

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Why is collective bargaining so important?

Lakoff explains: "The real point of collective bargaining is the idea of fairness inherent in democracy. Without unions, large corporations have an unfair advantage in hiring individual workers: Workers have to take what is offered, a fair wage for work done or not. Unions help to even the playing field, enabling workers to have a fair chance against wealthy, powerful large organizations - whether corporations or governments."
He continues: "If those unions are destroyed, American life will become unrecognizable in a remarkably short time. Democracy as we know it is at stake in the Wisconsin protests, not just budgets and unions."

The situation in Canada:

Canadian media, including the Edmonton Journal, the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, have recently covered a report by a Winnipeg think-tank called the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, which claimed that public-sector pay raises in a decade from 1998 had risen faster than private-sector pay. (It ignored the previous decade, which saw an attack on public-sector pay and jobs and overlooked the overall decline in middle-class incomes while executive rewards soared, even in a time of financial chaos.)

This study and others by groups claiming to represent taxpayers or small businesses have been used for years to undermine the public sector and the important work they do providing vital public services.

This pressure is growing. If the anti-union, anti-middle class, anti-democracy moves in the U.S. succeed, you can be sure you'll see them here.

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