Whose Prosperity are Provincial Tories Defending?

Take away workers’ rights? I don’t think so, Tim.

After the provincial legislature adjourned for the summer, the Progressive Conservatives released a policy paper entitled “Paths To Prosperity: Flexible Labour Markets.” The document [PDF] is a not-so-subtle directive to cripple Ontario’s labour unions. It also includes measures to reduce injury and disability premiums across the board. The PCs don’t have the votes to pass any of this, and so the paper’s release was intended purely to help Tim Hudak and company spend the so-called summer barbecue season roasting Ontario’s workforce.

The policy document suggests the path to prosperity is a less regulated labour market, and that the rise of unions has blunted our once prosperous economy. Tory MPP Randy Hillier describes “endless opportunities in manufacturing, skilled trades, professional services and a burgeoning service sector” when he entered the workforce a mere forty years ago. He then argues that collective bargaining rights his generation enjoyed were “created in the era of protectionism,” otherwise known as the post-Second World War 1940s.

The Tories propose an end to mandatory union dues and increased scrutiny of union contributions. “Rules that make union leaders work a little harder to justify their value boosts employment, increases paycheques, attracts business investment and expands the economy,” the paper says. Of course, as many have already noted, the real goal of this proposal is to reduce wages across the board, and to prevent unions from mobilizing against the PCs, as they did so effectively during last year’s election.

Hudak and friends also argue that insurance premiums employers pay into the Workplace Safety and Insurace Board are too high, and that private insurers should be allowed to compete with the WSIB to drive down workers’ injury and disability benefits. Again, the theory is that if employers can pay lower wages and benefits across the province, they can use their savings to create more jobs. But the paper’s claim that existing premiums are “the result of establishing premiums and benefits to suit political considerations instead of actual market demands,” deserves much closer scrutiny.

Former PC leader Mike Harris underfunded the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board during the 90s, and helped to create a $14 Billion unfunded liability. Ironically, Harris’ labour minister at that time, Elizabeth Witmer, recently resigned from Hudak’s cabinet to accept an appointment to lead the WSIB and address its massive shortfall. Now that the WSIB appears to be in crisis, the conservatives see an opportunity to get private insurers into the mix.

As conservatives contend that businesses just need a few more incentives to re-enter the shaky economy, those same business continue to rack up cash and stash it away. Despite the difficult economic times of the last few years, Canadian corporations have been hoarding hundreds of billions in profits instead of re-investing in the economy.

This attack against workers, particularly unionized ones, is the continuation of a Tory strategy to employ wedge politics as a distraction from decisions by large employers to remove jobs and investments from Ontario. During the last election, Hudak courted votes with shameless homophobic, racist, and xenophobic electioneering. But the particular groups Hudak blames for our economic struggles are less important than his desire to shift that blame from the private sector.

The proposal to reduce benefits for injured and disabled workers has consequences for all workers, not simply those conservatives characterize as entitled or lazy. But the objective is the same: perpetuate the notion that private interests are eager to invest in Ontario’s economic future, if only we can understand their challenges and moderate our demands accordingly. Rather than buy into simplistic “pro” or “anti” union rhetoric, we should be asking how we will ultimately benefit from lower wages, more precarious employment, and fewer protections for those too sick or too injured to work.

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