Monday, June 27, 2011

What Wrath We Have Brought

There's no sources for today, if only because everyone should be aware of the situation without the need for a news report summarizing and talking about the issue.

What I would like to talk about today is the status of unions in Canadian society. I'm going to admit something shocking; growing up, I was always under the impression that unions were the bad guys. From everything I'd seen in television and movies, and from the occasional complaints of people like my dad, I was under the impression that unions were a 'force for evil'.

That unions protected lazy workers from being fired; that they would throw down a strike notice at the flip of a switch; and that above all else, they wanted more money for doing less work.

Of course, as I got older, I began to do my own 'research' into the idea of unions. This of course was hindered slightly as I've only ever worked one job where I was a member of a union...And even then, there was never cause to worry much about it.

And there is something that I have discovered: Contrary to popular (or is it just Conservative) opinion, unions are not the bad guys. In fact, unions tend to be the ones fighting the bad guys.

Allow me to take this out of morality terms and make it a bit clearer: Unions are the little guys; corporations are the big guys. In a sense, unions are the underdogs and are fighting to ensure that workers rights are not crushed by the corporate machine in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Let's look at the key difference:

Unions exist to protect workers; whereas corporations exist to create profit. Unions are formed by the people who are DOING the work, which creates the profit, in order to ensure that they are not only compensated fairly for their time and effort, but that they also have safe working conditions.

Back in the day, before unions, workers had no rights in the workplace. They were often working long hours, for little pay, and in dangerous conditions. Think back to the time of the Industrial Revolution; where it was cheaper to hire and train a new worker, then it was to give a raise to someone who worked there for years.

While safety improved, slightly, since the time of the Industrial Revolution and into the late 1900s; the corporate mindset did not. In many ways, the corporate mindset continues to exist in the Industrial Revolution. After all, the person who owns the company or the factory or whatever, often does not work there themselves...Yet, they see remarkable profit from the work done in the factory.

This is as true now, as it was in the late 1800s.

Now, I could stand up here and talk about Marx and Engels and the means of production...But, then you'd all just call me a 'communist' and walk away. I can assure you, I'm not a communist. (I might have been briefly in high school, but we all did silly things in high school.)

Back to the point: Unions were created out of necessity. Workers were not being adequately compensated for their time and their work, and safety conditions were still questionable. As such, the workers did the only thing they could: They came together and stood up to the corporations.

They arranged sit downs in factories, pickets, job actions, all the same things that we see from modern unions. And in the end, they actually won (in most cases).

Flash forward to today: In the USA, in various states, governors are openly declaring war against unions, removing the rights to collective bargaining and job action and numerous other methods of action that unions have.

Despite the USA battle being more prominent to some, Saskatchewan has been at war with unions since the election of the Saskatchewan Party and Brad Wall. Wall's government introduce essential services legislation, despite calling it unnecessary during the election, and has made some use of this legislation.

Furthermore, they were willing to call the Legislature back into session in order to approve back to work legislation on crop insurance evaluators, who were without a contract for two years. Let me expand on that.

The crop insurance evaluators were without a contract for TWO YEARS. I highlight that fact because they are not in a unique situation. Other government employees, from Sasktel to Doctors to Nurses to Teachers, are finding TWO YEARS to be the new minimum for attention from the Wall Government.

Many of our government employees have been without a contract for two years, or more in some cases. Yet, when job action is threatened, the Wall Government invokes the shadow of the essential services legislation (which is so intentionally vague that it could be applied to a dog walker) or back-to-work legislation.

There is a storm brewing in this province. The disdain that the Wall Government has shown for workers only proves that they are putting profits and corporations ahead of the rights of workers. This is further exampled by the fact that the Wall Government has cut programs which stress safer worker places, and Saskatchewan has seen some fairly high numbers of both worker injury and worker deaths since the Wall Government came to office.

However, the war on organized labour doesn't stop at the Saskatchewan-Alberta or Saskatchewan-Manitoba borders...It goes right to the Federal Government, as evidenced by the latest Canada Post strike.

As you all should be aware, Canada Post went on strike over a variety of issues that they just could not come to an agreement on with their employer. Chief among these complaints were payments reflecting the inflated cost of living within Canada, along with concerns over pensions and other benefits.

With the strike moving from rotating strikes to nation wide, the Conservative Harper Government made no short time in preparing back to work legislation for Canada Post. Despite efforts by the NDP to modify, and block, the bill it was passed and rushed through the Senate and approved by the Governor General on Sunday.

Now, to some people, this isn't a bad thing. After all, Canada Post gets a new contract and goes back to work with further disputes being sent to an arbitrator. However, the fine print says otherwise.

The union was asking for a raise based on the percentage required to match inflation. Canada Post countered the union with a lower offer, as corporations are inclined to do. But the Harper Government took it a step further, by including a provision that would increase pay LOWER than the offer made by Canada Post.

Let me try and put this in simpler terms: Let's say you ask your boss for a raise. You ask for a simple, let's say 3% raise. He counters with an offer of 2%. After some argument, your boss's boss agrees to give you a raise but at the rate of 1%.

That's more or less the case here. Despite Canada Post being willing to compromise and give their workers a slightly better, but not what they were asking for pay raise, the Harper Government undercut that offer and forced the workers into a contract that no one asked for and no one approved of.

Now, I've already mentioned the brewing storm of angry labour in Saskatchewan, but there is much more to this. If unions are stripped of the ability to defend their workers, and seek fair pay, then unions become obsolete. And if unions are gone, the economic landscape of Canada would look vastly different.

Right now the war is against public sector unions, under the guise of them being a waste of taxpayer dollars. But, if that conflict ends with the unions busted it is only a matter of time before private unions meet the same fate. Effectively, we are in a conflict between the rights of workers and the bottom line.

And I don't know about you, but for me people come before profits. This is not the 1800s; workers and people have rights, and no matter how hard people try, rights cannot be taken away.

We have a duty to stand with those who are fighting for the right cause; because if we fail to do nothing now, simply because we aren't in that union or any union, we will share in the defeat in the years to come.

As such, on the topic of solidarity, I'd like to end this post with a well known statement by Martin Niemoller:

"First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Shall They or Shant They?

Source: CTV News: Senate Reform Ruffles Some Conservative Feathers

Well, there's a lot to talk about. We could sit here and discuss the Conservatives' quick action on legislating Canada Post back to work. We could talk about Libya and Canada's expanding role with NATO in the region. We could even talk about Jack Layton humbly moving into Stornoway...

But what we will talk about is an issue that has been brought up since the Conservatives were first elected: Senate Reform.

The issue of Senate Reform has been a hot button issue since the re-elected Conservative Majority was quick to place Larry Craig and Fabien Manning back into the Senate after they had made runs to become Members of the House of Commons but were defeated in the election. Harper also appointed a former Quebec Tory to the upper chamber as well, in the wake of the NDP sweep in the province.

Some pundits suggested that Harper was attempting to invoke anger in Canadians through these appointments by urging Canadians to push for Senate reform, in an attempt perhaps to get provincial governments on side with the potential constitutional reform problem. But that seems to have failed, given Ontario and Quebec's opposition to Senate Reform.

Even now, Harper seems to be telling Senators that if they do not back reform he will move to abolish the Senate. This would be a move that Ontario and Quebec would support, but it's doubtful that Alberta and other provinces would support it. Why you ask?

The Senate was meant to exist as the voice of the provinces on a Federal level; a purpose which has more or less died thanks to partisanship and patronage appointments...Not that it ever fulfilled that purpose in the past when it was first created, mind you.

As such, it is supposed to give equal sway to regions of the country to support or oppose legislation that could be detrimental to their region. With the Senate abolished, provinces lose Federal representation. As such, provinces which have always felt snubbed by Ottawa will be less quick to support taking away an institution that gives them a voice on the Federal scene...Though they would be quick to reform it.

As such, Harper's supposed threat of abolishing the senate if they don't reform is a moot point, as he can't do this unilaterally and will need the support of the provinces, which he likely won't have. Furthermore, no one is sure whether or not this reform will even be adapted. Quebec has threatened to launch a court challenge to the constitutionality of the House of Commons and the Senate reforming themselves without the consent of the provinces.

Which brings us to the proposed reforms: The two that have come out is an elected senate with a nine year term limit for Senators. As opposed to appointed Senators, who serve until the age of 75.

Now, I've mentioned many times on this blog that I support Senate Reform has opposed to Senate abolishing. So, if you want my suggestions on how to reform the Senate, go back or search the blog for them because there's no point in mentioning them for a 3rd or 4th time on the blog.

What I can say is that Harper's reforms don't go far enough, and at the same time pose problems.

The problem is mostly one of politics. As mentioned, the Senate is already incredibly partisan due to the appointment process. But under an elected system, the Senate would only get worse. Allow me to attempt to explain.

The Bloc Quebecois was an oddity on the Federal level, given that it was more or less a provincial party. Direct Senate elections will likely lead to the same thing, with established parties vying for support in elections BUT could also lead to the rise of provincial local parties that could become the norm.

After all, why vote for the 'established' parties when you can vote for a provincial party that will represent your views better on the Federal level, as they answer to the people not the political machine in Ottawa.

Why this sounds like a victory for electors, it's not.

I say that because a fractured Senate dominated by regional parties would be the worst thing for Canada than the Senate we have now. This is simply due to the game of numbers:

Alberta, Ontario and Quebec combined have 54 seats in the current Senate. Every other province has a combined total of 51. That means that these three provinces would effectively decide which bills pass and which bills fail by simply supporting or opposing them.

Now, under a normal party system, this isn't a problem as the party with the most seats would be beholden to their party to support the legislation being brought forward. But if regional parties dominate the Senate, all hell breaks loose for the rest of Canada.

I say so because a triumvirate of Alberta, Ontario and Quebec would dominate the legislative agenda. Picture a Federal Budget in these conditions. Those three provinces would be able to oppose the budget if they did not feel that their province was getting a fair shake compared to others.

As such, they could simply defeat the budget by agreeing to vote it down until they were appeased. Traditionally, the Senate doesn't defeat money bills: But reforming the Senate makes them accountable, which in turn removes the tradition of why they didn't defeat money bills, so this scenario is indeed plausible.

Furthermore, the existence (though now limited one) of the Bloc Quebecois shows that regional parties could become a dominant force in federal politics provided they produce results for the province that they represent.

So, while this is all conjecture and speculation, it is worth thinking about before the Senate is reformed.

With the problems of Senate reform, especially elected Senate Reform, covered we can now talk about why Harper's attempt will end in failure.

Conservative Senators seem to be cool to the idea. Despite Senators being appointed like crazy to give the Conservatives a majority in the Senate, quite a few seem unwilling to destroy their own jobs.

After all, if you were making six figures with massive benefits, would you really tell your boss that you don't want your job anymore? I don't think anyone in the world is THAT noble, despite what they might say in public. Hell, I'll even admit that I would have serious pause about destroying my own career if I sat in the Senate...Though if the right reform was proposed, I would support it.

And now Harper is realizing the folly of his actions: He appointed a bunch of people to a plush job that they don't want to give up. I'm sure a number of his Senators will support the legislation, but there's a number who will likely find something wrong with the bill and vote it down if only to get that corrected.

In other words, it might be a continual back and forth between the House and Senate in legislative hell.

In the end, we'll see if the 'principled' people Harper appointed to the Senate to destroy it from within retain their loyalty to the Conservative Party; or to their own pocketbooks.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Federal Budget

Source: CTV News: Highlights of the Federal Budget
Source: CBC News: Flaherty Sticks to Deficit Pledge, But Adds No Details

Again, I'm still on the mend, so getting here to post isn't always a priority at the moment. However, I've found some time and a comfortable sitting position, so let's begin.

The House of Commons in back in session, for the first phase of the first Harper Conservative Majority government. Andrew Scheer was elected by his peers to serve as Speaker of the House, making him the youngest Speaker in the history of the Commons at 32 years old. The Throne Speech was handed down last Friday, during which a Senate Page engaged in some civil disobedience by holding up a sign saying 'Stop Harper' during the reading of the speech.

The page of course was fired from her position, but she seems to have entered the spotlight well enough that I don't think finding future employment will be too hard for her. Most of the parties have condemned her actions, or at least her methods.

And that brings us to budget day. I haven't had a chance to read through the whole budget text yet, but from what I'm reading in the highlights...It's more or less what we've expected. A re-hash of the failed budget from before the election, but with a few new goodies for a select few in it.

Primarily, Harper's Government has added the $2.2 billion dollar payment to Quebec to the budget; a move they would not add for the Bloc Quebecois for their support prior to the non-confidence vote that brought the government down.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20; but this is clearly nothing more than an attempt by the Harper Government to bolster their fortunes in Quebec. With the Bloc Quebecois decimated by the NDP in the election, the Conservatives are now hoping to replace the NDP as the first choice of Quebec voters.

After all, the Conservatives also took a number of wallops in Quebec as well, as several prominent Cabinet Ministers were relieved of their jobs and seats in the election. It's speculative, but I don't believe we'd have seen this measure in the budget had the Bloc Quebecois maintained their seat count, or if the Conservatives had surpassed the NDP in the province.

So, the budget so far contains an attempt to buy Quebec voters to the Conservative Party with tax dollars. What else does it have?

Despite it becoming a major talking point in the Maritimes, there is no mention of Federal support for a power project in Lower Churchill. This could also be tied to the idea of bolstering support for the Conservatives in Quebec, as Premier Jean Charest and others balked the idea as it would be harmful to Quebec's hydroelectric power providers.

Whether or not that is the reason why the Conservatives have put off the Lower Churchill project, despite being the first party to pledge support during the election, remains to be seen.

And finally, depending on who you believe, the talk of the deficit continues.

During the election, Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper began to throw out numbers on when the deficit would be rolled back. Despite a budget saying it wouldn't happen until 2014 - 2015, I recall them coming out and saying a Conservative majority could roll back the deficit by 2013.

Despite this claim that the deficit could be rolled back years ahead, Flaherty's budget contains the same numbers as before, without the election time calculation. In fact, a year has been ADDED to the budget deficit numbers, with Flaherty's own projections suggesting that the deficit will be gone by 2015 - 2016.

And of course, Flaherty touts programs cuts and government spending cuts as the primary means of achieving the reduction of the deficit.

So, we have 2 broken promises (deficit reduction by 2013, Lower Churchill Federal support) and a massive payout to Quebec at a time when austerity is being preached and ways to save money within the government are being talked about. And that brings us to one promise they did keep: the promise to remove political per vote subsidies.

Now, I've talked about this issue before. Political subsidies allow parties to be able to share their message with Canadians, while decreasing the influence of powerful interests behind the scenes. While there are caps on how much a person can contribute to a political party, and bans on corporations and unions and other groups from contributing at all, the subsidies ensured that parties stood on equal footing compared to their support.

By removing the subsidies, we are allowing ONE PARTY to control the message. One party that is able to raise more money will be able to buy more air time, buy more advertising in papers and billboards, and be able to get their message out louder and more often than the other parties.

That is not democracy, that's oligarchy.

In order for democracy to work, political parties must stand on an equal footing and be able to get their messages across to voters. We cannot allow those with the most money to simply control the agenda and the message, to decide what is and is not important and what does and does not have merit in discussing. If we do that, then one party will always control the message and the medium and will clobber the electorate over the head into believing their spin and their bias, not the truth.

Democracy must be fair and balanced and removing these subsidies will only tip the scales and allow the Conservatives to control the message and the debate. Democracy thrives on debate and the free exchange of ideas, and this removal of subsidies will only foster the destruction of these ideals.

All in all, a budget that addresses nothing more than the Conservative desire to attract more voters and increase their own political fortunes.