Trudeau's Fading Relationship with Canadian Labour

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Trudeau's Fading Relationship with Canadian Labour

Trudeau's government started so well, writes Fuatai. (Photo: Province of British Columbia/flickr/cc)

Remember when new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, met with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) in November? After a decade of hostility under Stephen Harper, the Ottawa meet offered a bit of hope for a beleaguered labour movement.

But, nearly a year later, things aren't that much better. Teuila Fuatai reviews the Liberals' time in office.

Workers' legislation

Justin Trudeau's government started well, moving swiftly to repeal anti-union legislation in bills C-377 and C-525. Ushered in during the Harper years, the bills implemented legislation that made it harder for workers to unionize, and forced unions to disclose detailed financial information about activities like political lobbying and donations.

Public sector unions also applauded the decision to repeal Bill C-59, which enabled the government to bypass the collective bargaining process and impose new sick leave rules on the public service.

Unfortunately, the strong start from the Liberals failed to carry through into the rest of the year, with little movement seen at the public sector union bargaining tables, and the repeal of Bill C-4 yet to tabled formally in Parliament. Trudeau said last month at the Unifor national convention the government planned to introduce repeal legislation for the bill this fall.

Under Bill C-4 rules, bargaining is heavily skewed in favour of the government. The legislation introduced a raft of anti-union measures impacting contract negotiations that include enabling the government to decide which unions can go to arbitration and which ones are allowed to strike, and skewing the arbitration route in favour of pro-government settlement offers.

Temporary Foreign Workers' Program

Temporary foreign workers have no rights, protections or pathway to permanent residency and citizenship in Canada. Employer abuse and exploitation of workers under the program has been well documented -- inspiring an op-ed in the Toronto Star from then-opposition MP Trudeau two years ago.

"In the end, this is a basic issue of fairness. Fairness for Canadians who need work, and for vulnerable people who travel to Canada from abroad in search of a real opportunity to succeed," Trudeau wrote. "I believe it is wrong for Canada to follow the path of countries who exploit large numbers of guest workers, who have no realistic prospect of citizenship. It is bad for our economy in that it depresses wages for all Canadians, but it's even worse for our country."

However, since his election as prime minister, his government has done more to increase opportunities for exploitation of temporary foreign workers than alleviate them.

In February, it removed the hiring cap for temporary foreign workers in seasonal industries for 2016. Employers in these industries can bring in as many temporary foreign workers as they want. Those not covered by the exemption must limit the number of temporary foreign workers to 20 per cent of its workforce.

The Liberals also decided against dropping the cap to 10 per cent in July -- a limit originally set under the Conservatives.

In addition to this, the Liberal government has hinted at extending the temporary foreign workers' program, following pressure from employers during the recent parliamentary review on the scheme.

Employment insurance

Criticized as outdated, ineffective and severely under-resourced, reforming Canada's employment insurance (EI) system has been identified as a key mandate of the Liberals. Since taking office in November, the party has made some headway in tackling some of the system's problems -- however, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Positives so far include a reduction in the number of working hours required for a person to qualify for EI benefits (from 910 to between 420 and 700 hours depending on the local unemployment rate), as well as extending EI benefits in regions deemed worst hit by high unemployment rates.

Budgetary announcements dedicating more money to beefing up Service Canada and restaffing EI call centres have also been steps in the right direction.

Despite this, the Liberals have yet to scratch the surface in addressing fundamental problems -- like regional zoning, special benefit schemes and overall qualification standards -- in the current system.

As economists Angella MacEwen of the Canadian Labour Congress and Frances Woolley of Carleton University agree, a comprehensive public discussion about EI and its purpose has to occur before real, effective reform can take place.

Public sector employees

Promised a new approach under the Trudeau Liberals, Canada's public servants have found more similarities than differences between the current government and its predecessors when addressing problems in the public sector.

Since February, the Phoenix pay system debacle has resulted in thousands of civil servants missing out and/or receiving incorrect pay cheques. Attempts to fix the faulty system have also been bungled.

Contract negotiations between public sector unions and the government -- which began under the Harper administration in 2014 -- have also stalled around the employer's proposal to replace the current sick-leave regime with a short-term disability plan. In opposition, Trudeau slated this approach by the Tories.

In addition to this, Trudeau's failure to intervene in 10 months of contract negotiations between Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers led to postal workers, the corporation and the public teetering on a possible mail delivery stoppage until tentative agreements were reached just last week. Disagreement between the employer and the union was primarily due to opposing views each of the respective parties held for the future of the post office.

Throughout negotiations, CUPW remained frustrated at the government's failure to instruct Canada Post that privatization was not an option. The Liberals have previously stated this would not happen under their watch. The union believed Canada Post's bargaining demands were underpinned by its desire to ready the public corporation for sale, and that government intervention in the negotiations explicitly removing this as a possibility for Canada Post's future would have led to quicker progress in negotiations.

According to CUPW, government intervention stating explicitly that privatization of Canada Post is not an option -- as it has said in the past -- would render the employer's current austerity agenda unnecessary, and enable negotiations to proceed.

Teuila Fuatai

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She was rabble's labour beat reporter in 2016.

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