The past is a foreign country: Labour Day in Vancouver, not so long ago. Below: The workers, united, will never be defeated! The goal of union “transparency,” “worker choice,” “right to work” and other Orwellian right-wing buzzwords is to ensure the workers are never united and always defeated. Below that: Stephen Kushner, president of the anti-union Merit Contractors Association.


NOTE TO READERS: Since the Alberta chapter of the Merit Contractors Association, a group of non-union construction companies, seems to have recycled much of its past opinion survey and press release on union “transparency,” I thought I’d recycle most of my 2012 post responding to nearly identical claims made by the same group. Remember, it’s not plagiarism if you’re only plagiarizing yourself.

When I was a kid growing up in British Columbia in the 1950s, there was a holiday at the end of the summer called “Labour Day” on which Canadians celebrated the vast contribution of working people to the past, present and future of our great country.

Unions, groups of working people who pooled their modest individual strength to bargain collectively and ensure that a fair share of the great wealth they created ended up in the hands of ordinary families, would sometimes gather for picnics on this holiday, which was tinged with true patriotism, and sing songs.

One of those songs, a particular favourite in those long-ago days, went like this: “It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade; Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid; Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made; But the union makes us strong….”

Well, those days are gone – the part about “but the union makes us strong,” anyway – and I can almost hear many of you, dear readers, silently mouthing “Thank God!”

Today, our Tea Party of Canada government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is dedicated to signing “trade agreements” that ensure high-paying Canadian jobs are exported as quickly as possible to more efficient foreign jurisdictions, such as China, the role of public education is well on its way to being outsourced to corporate shills, and the final long weekend of our short Canadian summer is devoted to what might be called the Seventy-Two Hour Hate, a three-day frenzy of official and media sponsored loathing for the weakened vestiges of the labour movement.

Oddly enough, though, this occasion is still known as “Labour Day.”

This year, as in the recent past, we are marking Labour Day 2014 with the traditional publication in the media of “studies” by right-wing think tanks that “prove” how we’d all be better off if there were no unions, no pensions and no public health care, as well as with a “new” poll that purports to show everyone is in agreement that unions are at best an irrelevant anachronism, at worst an outright menace.

OK, enough with the sarcasm. The survey was conducted for the Merit Contractors Association, a group that describes itself as “the voice of open shop construction in Alberta.” Open shop, in this context, means non-union and prepared to do pretty well anything to stay that way.

The poll was conducted by Innovative Research Group, Merit said in its press release on Friday, which otherwise was little different from statements it has made about similar polls conducted for the association by other pollsters in the past.

The survey purports to show, in the words of Merit President Stephen Kushner, that “Albertans have a strong desire for labour reform on union fiscal transparency, worker choice and a fair and equitable labour market.”

Now, two points need to be made about this statement:

  1. Merit’s claims about the survey are hard to verify because the group has not provided us with access to a copy of the poll and the questions asked of respondents.
  2. Several of the phrases in Mr. Kushner’s statement, which may have been used in the poll, are coded expressions that do not mean what they appear to say. “Union fiscal transparency” means forcing unions to comply with expensive reporting rules more severe than those required of corporations and other organizations. “Worker choice” means effectively depriving workers of the choice of being union members. “A fair and equitable labour market” means U.S. style “right to work” laws that make it impossible for unions to operate.

In the past, this poll was conducted for Merit by another pollster that provided details about the questions asked and the number of respondents. It was possible to argue based on that information that the poll was a “push-poll” that asked questions clearly designed to make unions look bad, thereby leading respondents to the obvious “correct” conclusions about how to deal with that badness.

Deprived of this information about the current poll, it is impossible to say that this is also a push poll. However, the probability, given Merit’s history and well-known position, plus the loaded terminology repeated in Mr. Kushner’s news release, is quite high that the results of the 2014 poll are not a legitimate measure of public opinion.

Unlike its previous pollster, which had a reputation for serious public opinion research and was taken to task publicly for its role in promoting a push-poll, Innovative Research Group appears from its website to be principally a public relations firm specializing in issues management, corporate communications and fund-raising. This is not a comment on the quality of its public opinion research, of course, because we do not have an example of the work to comment on.

Merit has not yet responded to my request, made Friday afternoon as soon as I became aware of their news release, for more information about the poll. Perhaps they left work early to enjoy the Labour Day weekend.

Regardless, it is easy to get poll respondents to say they support “transparency” of union finances – a position for which an argument can be made.

However, I can guarantee you that with the right loaded questions it would be similarly easy to get like results in a poll asking about the benefits of financial transparency for governments, private corporations doing business with the public, public and private employers during negotiations, far-right “think tanks” and, just for one more example, non-union construction employers’ lobby groups. A good argument can be made for all these ideas as well.

Similarly, one could use push-poll questions to elicit responses that would allow us to confidently state that a majority of Canadians, including people who work in management, support a ban on corporate political donations and an end to charitable status for corporate think tanks that engage in constant political advocacy.

Be that as it may, most Merit Contractors members are virulently anti-union small construction firms that have banded together to pool their strength and lobby collectively (you know, like a union) for laws that would make it much more difficult for unions to organize Merit employees and represent them effectively. As a necessary sideline, they make a big effort to persuade the public that this is a good idea.

At any rate, for all their rhetoric about “choice” and “freedom” and their alleged concern for the rights of working people, I think it’s fair to say that Merit members’ principal interests in this are avoiding the inconvenience of dealing with unions generally as well as finding ways to compete with larger, often more successful, unionized contractors.

If they can recast their competitive struggles as a fight for “worker rights” and see the imposition of legislation that also makes it harder for their chief competitors to operate as they do now, perhaps they can increase they market share.

I wonder if IRG has done any parallel – and methodologically similar – polls on how many Albertans support the full disclosure of company financial information, especially during union negotiations? They might also ask how many Albertans want their tax dollars to subsidize excessive contracts with private companies, large executive bonuses and severance payments, or any advertising, including glossy corporate and government brochures.

You get the idea. Probably almost all of our imaginary respondents would agree with the conclusions suggested by these questions too – especially they’re worded like those in a typical push poll.

Well, never mind. Later today, from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the Edmonton and District Labour Council will hold its annual Labour Day picnic at Giovanni Caboto Park.

This popular event will attract a huge throng of Edmonton’s many unemployed and working poor citizens, hardship that stubbornly persists despite Alberta’s seeming economic prosperity. Similar events organized by unions will take place in communities all across Canada.

My guess is that most Canadians, polled about this informal annual charitable effort by unions and their members, would strongly approve. I wonder what they would say if they knew the proposals pushed by the Merit Contractors and their ilk would make these picnics illegal?

Happy Labour Day!

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  1. I worked in a company for many years that was non-union. The wages were not bad, but there were not many benefits and certainly no pension plan. The day the company declared bankruptcy, thousands of us were presented with a two week severance cheque and a kick in the head as we walked out the door. Mind you, the company executives and shareholders sold the company assets and disappeared with millions of dollars like thieves in the night.

    I was lucky enough to find employment with a unionized organisation. The wages were lower, but they offered full benefits and a pension plan. And the union provided dignity and protection from harassment. So, based on my experience, there is power in a union.

    Happy Labour Day!

  2. On Press Progress today via YouTube – an anti-Con, anti-Howard (Harper’s idol) ad from Australia.

    What have the unions ever done for us?.

    Quite a lot, as it turns out.

    What ever happened to John Howard? Oh, yeah. Not only was his government voted out, he also lost his own seat. What a shame…

  3. Yes, yes, yes I’m sure every Canadian hates unions. That’s why every study every undertaken concludes that once a person was employed and covered by a union agreement for any length of time, is also more likely to support unions in their next job. That is to say, once you’ve been a union member, you are more likely to hold favourable views about unions henceforth.

    This fact, is not lost on corporations when they make hiring decisions. Given a choice they will always hire candidates that have never been union members – why do you think that is?

    To the 70% of Canadian workers who have no pensions plans, I only have one thing to say: Continue to hate unions at your own peril.

  4. One often hears a ‘soft’ anti-union stance along the following lines: unions were great in their day, when there was ‘real’ work unfairness, but today, there are plenty of rules to protect workers so unions just don’t serve a purpose anymore.

    A stance like this is more or less akin to anti-vaccers who claim that we don’t need to inoculate kids anymore because whooping cough and diphtheria are long gone from our population. Well, we all know what happens when too many people act with that type of an argument, don’t we?

    1. Hey troll,

      Redford never accomplished anything with Bills 45 & 46. Therefore, to claim she did, is incorrect.
      This is much like your wrong-headed viewpoint!

      Enjoy Labour Day brought to you by the labour movement as you rant against unions.

    2. Look here, today is our day so no matter what that doughy pantload destitute in Ottawa masquerading as your leader does and no matter what clueless shills like you say I am enjoying it.

  5. I am an average worker. I make decent wages and I hate unions. Why? They want to tell me how to invest my money for retirement. They keep the worst workers employed. They take union dues for the big union executives who do nothing.

    Alberta is successful because we have the least amount of unions.

    1. unionized workers make more money than you Adam. Moreover, they have better job security, and benefits including pensions. Go ahead and hate an inanimate object or concept. Go ahead and invest in our casino economy by yourself. We’ll see you in 20 years, when the average unionized worker will be way ahead of you financially. Then, I imagine you’ll be blaming unions for ripping you off.

        1. Hey Joe,
          Unions represent workplaces based on very democratic process called union certification that is monitored by the labour board. Therefore, they have the legal and moral right to represent a specified group of workers. Majority rules, or would you prefer the fascist alternative of outlawing unions?

          If you don’t like unions, then you are free to not like them, but once they have been certified by the government and they have passed all the legal hurdles it is moral – very moral!

          Of course you are free to work somewhere else, if your workplace is unionized – so quit, but don’t dictate to the majority, especially if they have already voted to have one represent their interests.

          Union workers get paid more! That’s a fact.

        2. Hey Joe,
          Unions represent workplaces based on very democratic process called union certification that is monitored by the labour board. Therefore, they have the legal and moral right to represent a specified group of workers. Majority rules, or would you prefer the fascist alternative of outlawing unions?

          If you don’t like unions, then you are free to not like them, but once they have been certified by the government and they have passed all the legal hurdles it is moral – very moral!

          Of course you are free to work somewhere else, if your workplace is unionized – so quit, but don’t dictate to the majority, especially if they have already voted to have one represent their interests.

    2. Just look back at the conditions for any Canadian workers before the Winnipeg General Strike ….. you will see why we need collective bargaining advocates for rights for all workers and standards for workplaces!!

    3. No, Alberta is successful because it is sitting on a lifetime supply of bitumen that happens to be in demand right now because half a billion Chinese have moved from the country-side to the city. That’s really about it.

      Oh, and the fact that the federal Liberal party (they of the dastardly NEP) subsidized research in the 1990’s that made the process of extracting oil from bitumen financially viable.

      Happy Labour Day

  6. You people are such maroons. Unions prevent a race to the bottom in every aspect of a business. Short term thinking, and predatory business practises are endemic in the American and some Canadian corporate cultures. Combine blind profit before safety national loyalty and quality as an ideology with amoral leadership and you guarantee that workers need unions to provide some protection from whatever genius decides to for example in the case of Husky oil use their buddies in government to allow them to bring unsafe foreign workers to turn the worksite into a fatal waiting to happen. All while there are Canadian trades people lining up for the jobs. Thanks Jason Kenney!
    By the way I call bull on you and your fact free tripe.
    “Congressional Research Service: Workers In Right-To-Work States Make An Average Of $7,000 Less Than Those In Non-Right-To-Work States. Citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Congressional Research Service reported that the average wage in a right-to-work state was $42,465, compared with $49,495 in “labor security” states. [Congressional Research Service, 6/20/12]”

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