Unions, the right to strike and even the principle of collective bargaining are seemingly under attack.
When Conservative Labour Minister Lisa Raitt blocked Air Canada flight attendants from striking this week, she delivered another body blow to a union movement bruised and battered here and in the U.S.
With high unemployment and a struggling economy, unions have increasingly been targeted. Their goals of higher wages, job security and improved pensions have become the focus of resentment by politicians on the right and businesses struggling to compete internationally with firms whose wages could not sustain life in North America. Even struggling workers often seem impatient and angry with union people.
With the gap growing between haves and have-nots, some workers' intolerance of the union movement is an ironic form of slow suicide, one academic suggests.
"Unions contribute to the eradication of the large difference between rich and poor, not just through collective bargaining but through strong lobbying," says Robert Hebdon, a professor of labour-management relations at McGill. "All workers benefit."
Curiously, even with much-publicized attacks on public-service unions in the U.S. states of Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican governors put the hammer to collective bargaining rights, support for unions stayed at 52 per cent, according to a poll cited by the New York Times. The anti-union laws ushered in a wave of recall elections that cost Republicans two seats in Wisconsin's state Senate.
Jean Lacharité, a spokesperson for the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), says unionism in Quebec is holding up well compared with the rest of the continent.
At 40 per cent, Quebec has the highest rate of unionized workers in North America and they tend to earn an average of $5 more per hour than non-unionized employees, not counting other benefits like pensions and job security, he says.
And while many sectors bargain in good faith, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has launched a concerted attack against union rights, Lacharité argues.
"There is no respect at all for the right to strike or even for negotiation. It's a total negation of collective bargaining and the charter of rights."
Michael Luff, director of communications for the 340,000-member National Union of Public and General Employees, representing provincial workers outside Quebec, says one in three Canadians are unionized.
"The numbers of people interested in joining unions are quite high," Luff says. "But the fear of reprisal turns them off."
In general, the situation for unions in Canada is not as dire as it is in the U.S., he says.
Unions have for many become the scapegoat for a fragile economy and high unemployment, rationales for the Harper government's get-tough approach on collective bargaining and union rights.
"As people live cheque to cheque, there's greater insecurity, trust erodes, everyone fights for whatever's left behind," Luff says.
Luff 's union president, Jack Clancy, said in a speech recently that the huge disparity between rich and poor has inevitably led to poorer education, less consumption, reliance on cheap credit and all the risk that debt entails, including the rise in homelessness, health costs and crime rates.
"We become a society full of diverse economic groups suspicious of each other and our future together," Clancy says. "Resentment and bitterness increase. Nobody wants to pay taxes. And inequality soars. And everybody loses."
"Politicians exploit the resentment," Luff adds.
Not everyone agrees that unions are the fix and McGill's Hebdon says a study commissioned by the World Bank found the evidence mixed on whether unions provided employers with economic benefits.
A Fraser Institute report on unions in 1997 stated that unions tend to decrease productivity growth, reduce profitability, retard investment in physical capital and research and development, and lower the rate of employment growth.
"Research from around the world indicates that union firms have lower levels of productivity in contrast to comparable non-union firms," noted Professor Barry Hirsch of Florida State University. "In some cases, unionized firms have profit margins which are 10 to 20 per cent lower in contrast to non-union firms."
But unions will point out that a worker with a say in his job will be a happier employee. Better wages, pensions and benefits mean employees will stay at a job longer and not only increase productivity but decrease training costs.
Workers with job security will not only be more faithful to the employer, they will, if given sufficient incentive, contribute to productivity gains and efficiencies, goes the union argument. And the grievance process allows for a systematic way to address complaints against the employer.
A former garment workers' organizer, who asked to remain anonymous, agrees.
"It used to be that if an employee made a complaint, he would just disappear, be fired, that was it. But once the unions came in, employers had to deal with employees in a more humane manner," he says. "If they screamed and yelled and humiliated workers, there was a grievance process. Everyone just calmed down and workers didn't have to worry about getting fired every minute."
It also meant better wages. Unions lobbying for higher minimum wages, larger pensions, better medicare, can benefit everyone, unions say.
Robert Reich, a U.S. former secretary of labour and a professor at the University of California Berkeley, recently wrote a denunciation of the growing inequalities propelling anti-Wall St. protests across North America, including one in Montreal Saturday. It's a sign that the tide of union bashing might be ebbing and the target of resentment for some at least, has become those with sevenfigure salaries and bonuses, the corporations that pay them and the governments that support them.
Reich wrote that Germany's economy has grown faster than the U.S.'s in the last 15 years. While pay rates in the U.S. have grown six per cent since 1985, adjusted for inflation, in Germany worker's pay has risen almost 30 per cent. The disparity between rich and poor is much less than in North America and Reich credits education and "maintaining strong labour unions."
His argument is that since the late 1970s, instead of raising taxes for the rich and reducing them for the poor, governments have done the opposite. "It shredded safety nets . and allowed companies to bust unions and threaten employees who tried to organize."
Reich says we're all in the same economic boat and when the boat begins to sink, it takes rich and poor down together.
McGill's Hebdon says the North American model of adversarial relations between union and employer has led to decades of strife, open warfare and wasted man hours and money.
He, too, points to Europe and beyond - Sweden, Germany and Japan - as countries where workers were welcomed into the corporate covenant. They have a seat at the table and their ideas and ambitions are welcomed.
Unions in many cases, he says, embraced technology, understanding that more efficient production would benefit everyone.
The hostile attitude by the Canadian government toward Air Canada workers and the postal workers has ugly implications for the future. It condones taking away bargaining rights, which means employers in future will be less likely to co-operate at contract time and more prone to attempt union-busting tactics.
When Andrew MacDougall, associate director of communications in the Prime Minister's Office, was asked how the Prime Minister would respond to charges he was union bashing, MacDougall replied: "Our government is committed to supporting unions and employers, while advancing stable labour relations."
Yet if the government prevents unions from walking out to protest members' wages, the entire economy suffers. The butcher and the baker and the automaker all shed customers as workers' wages decline.
According to Statistics Canada, between 1980 and 2005, income for the richest 20 per cent of Canadians grew 16.4 per cent. For the poorest 20 per cent, it dropped 20.6 per cent. For almost everyone else, or about 60 per cent of the population, income stagnated.
It has become accepted political rhetoric from politicians of all stripes that job creation is a top priority. But if the jobs created don't pay very well and the only institution we have to fight for living wages is handcuffed, then where does that leave us as a society struggling to recover from a recession and massive wage inequities?