Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
The Canadian Royal Mounties have offered to ride to the rescue of beleaguered American workers.
It doesn’t sound right. Americans perceive themselves to be the heroes. They are, after all, the country whose intervention won World War II, the country whose symbol, the Statue of Liberty, lifts her lamp to light the way, as the poem at the statue’s base says, for the yearning masses and wretched refuse, for the homeless and tempest-tossed.
America loves the underdog and champions the little guy. The United States is doing that, for example, by demanding in the negotiations to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that Mexico raise its miserable work standards and wages. Now, though, here comes Canada, the third party in the NAFTA triad, insisting that the United States fortify its workers’ collective bargaining rights. That’s the Mounties to the rescue of downtrodden U.S. workers.
This NAFTA demand from the Great White North arrives amid relentless attacks on labor rights in the United States, declining union membership and stagnant wages. To prevent Mexico’s poverty wages from sucking U.S. factories south of the border, the United States is insisting that Mexico eliminate company-controlled fake labor unions. Similarly, to prevent the United States and Mexico from luring Canadian companies away, Canada is stipulating that the United States eliminate laws that empower corporations and weaken workers.
The most infamous of these laws is referred to, bogusly, as right-to-work. Really, it’s right-to-bankrupt labor unions and right-to-cut workers’ pay. These laws forbid corporations and labor unions from negotiating collective bargaining agreements that require payments in lieu of dues from workers who choose not to join the union. These payments, which are typically less than full dues, cover the costs that unions incur to bargain contracts and pursue worker grievances.
Lawmakers that pass right-to-bankrupt legislation know that federal law requires labor unions to represent everyone in their unit at a workplace, even if those employees don’t join the union and don’t make any payments. These dues-shirkers still get the higher wages and better benefits guaranteed in the labor contract. And they still get the labor union to advocate for them, even hire lawyers for them, if they want to file grievances against the company.
The allure of getting something for nothing, a sham created by right-wing politicians who prostrate themselves to corporations, ultimately can bankrupt unions forced to serve freeloaders. Which is exactly what the right-wingers and corporations want. It’s much easier for corporations to ignore the feeble pleas of individual workers for better pay and safer working conditions than to negotiate with unions that wield the power of concerted action.
Canada is particularly sensitive about America’s right-to-bankrupt laws because they’ve now crept up to the border. Among the handful of states that in recent years joined the right-to-bankrupt gang are Wisconsin and Michigan, both at the doorstep of a highly industrial region in Ontario, Canada.
So now, the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan can whisper in the ears of CEOs, “Come south, and we’ll help you break the unions. Instead of paying union wages, you can take all that money as profit and get yourself even fatter pay packages and bonuses!”
Then those governors will make American workers pay for the move with shocking tax breaks for corporations, like the $3 billion Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker promised electronics manufacturer Foxconn to locate a factory there. That’s $1 million in tax money for each of the 3,000 jobs that Foxconn said would be the minimum it would create with the $10 billion project.
Right-wing lawmakers like Walker and U.S. CEOs have been union busting for decades. And it’s been successful. In the heyday of unions in the 1950s and 1960s, nearly 30 percent of all U.S. workers belonged. Wage rates rose as productivity did. And they climbed consistently. Then, one wage-earner could support a middle-class family.
That’s not true anymore. For decades now, as union membership waned, wages stagnated for the middle class and poor, and compensation for CEOs skyrocketed. And this occurred even while productivity rose. By January of 2016, the most recent date for which the statistics are available, union membership had declined to 10.7 percent. The number of workers in unions dropped by nearly a quarter million from the previous year.
This is despite the fact that union workers earn more and are more likely to have pensions and employer-paid health insurance. The median weekly earnings for non-union workers in 2016 was $802. For union members, it was $1,004.
It’s not that labor unions don’t work. It’s that right-wing U.S. politicians are working against them. They pass legislation and regulations that make it hard for unions to represent workers.
It’s very different for unions in Canada. For example, union membership in Canada is growing, not dwindling like in the United States. In Canada, 31.8 percent of workers were represented by union in 2015, up 0.3 percentage points from 2014. That is higher than the all-time peak in the United States.
And it’s because Canadian legislation encourages unionization to counterbalance powerful corporations. In some Canadian provinces, for example, corporations are prohibited from hiring replacements when workers strike; striking workers are permitted to picket the companies that sell to and buy from their employer; labor agreements must contain “successorship” rights requiring a corporation that buys the employer to recognize the union and abide by its labor agreement; and employers must submit to binding arbitration if they fail to come to a first labor agreement with a newly formed union within a specific amount of time.
The second round of negotiations to rewrite NAFTA ended in Mexico this week. The third is scheduled for later this month in Canada. That’s a good opportunity for the northernmost member of the NAFTA triad to showcase its labor laws and explain why they are crucial to defending worker rights and raising wages.
Getting language protecting workers’ union rights into NAFTA is not enough, however. The trade deal must also contain penalties for countries that fail to meet the standards. This could be, for example, border adjustment taxes on exports from recalcitrant countries.
Canada’s 20,000 Royal Canadian Mounted Police only recently filed papers to unionize. That occurred after the Canadian Supreme Court overturned a 1960s era federal law that barred them from organizing.
Canada’s Supreme Court said the law violated the Mounties’ freedom of association, a right guaranteed to Americans in the U.S. Constitution. Now, Canada is riding to the rescue of U.S. and Mexican workers’ freedom of association by demanding the new NAFTA include specific protections for collective bargaining.
Leo W. Gerard is president of the United Steelworkers union. President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. Follow him on Twitter @USWBlogger.