The recent labour dispute between flight attendants and Air Canada management, ending under threat of “back-to-work” legislation, highlights that the democratic right to strike is under serious threat. The right to withdraw one’s labour is an essential component of the right of freedom of association for workers; without this right, workers and their unions have little ability to negotiate decent working conditions. These moves take us back to the 19th century, where all strikes were illegal and unionized workers could be imprisoned for joining a “conspiracy to raise wages”.
The use of back-to-work legislation effectively means that no workers have the right to strike without government approval. Especially with a Harper majority government, this tool can be pulled out haphazardly as the Conservatives fight to protect the interests of big business in Canada at the expense of workers.
Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers (CEP) president Dave Coles had this to say about back-to-work legislation: “The Harper government has all but destroyed free collective bargaining at Canada Post.” He added, “If Canadians understood that this was his intention they would not have given him a majority and the unbridled power to trample on rights. This shows Harper’s contempt for worker rights and for Canadian democracy.”
Legislation was used to punish the postal workers for going out on strike by forcing them to accept a worse deal than what was originally offered by Canada Post. By doing so, the Conservatives sent out a message to the workers in Canada that they will use all their tools to oppose workers’ struggles. Back-to-work legislation has been used on multiple occasions over the last two or three years, including ending strikes by Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) workers (on two separate occasions), and forcing York University contract faculty and teaching assistants back to work. However, the preparedness and frequency of the use of this legislation is increasing. While back-to-work legislation took three months to be prepared for the York University strike, no such patience was shown for the postal workers’ strike.
When contrasting the billions of dollars of bail-outs and tax cuts to major corporations with immediate efforts to suppress any labour disputes by anti-democratic back-to-work legislation by the Harper Conservatives, it is clear that the bosses are out on an offensive against the workers. The bosses are preparing massive austerity packages against workers, with Stephen Harper and Toronto’s Rob Ford at the helm of this initiative.
The working class faces no other alternative than to organize a massive fight back against the bosses’ offensive. This fight cannot be won by any single union on its own, but by the labour movement coming together. Eventually, one sector of organized labour will step up to defy back-to-work legislation and that will significantly raise the political stakes. We must remember that without breaking the law, not a single union would exist today. Such action puts one sector of the workers into direct confrontation with the capitalist state. These workers will only be able to win if they receive solidarity from the rest of the movement; the logical outcome of a movement like this leads inevitably to a general strike of all workers for the right to strike and organize. CUPW and the CEP are already on the right path and signed a “solidarity pact” earlier this year, with a strong blessing from Dave Coles who said, “Whatever decisions CUPW now must take, they will have the unconditional support of CEP and the Canadian labour movement.” After the flight attendants’ dispute, the labour movement needs to take stock of what needs to be done to mobilize its forces and show solidarity in action. Furthermore, labour must aggressively enter the political arena and prepare to fight to replace the Conservatives, who represent the bosses, with a government that will represent the workers.