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From Consent to Coercion: The Assault on Trade Union Freedoms, 3rd edition by Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz, Aurora, Ont.: Garamond Press, 2003, 270 pp., ISBN 1-55193-049-8.[Record]

  • Lance Compa

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  • Lance Compa
    Cornell University

American trade union advocates tend to see Canada as the Promised Land they would like to reach at home. Canadian workers have 30 percent union density, a level not seen in the United States since the 1950s. Unions can gain recognition based on signed membership cards, or at worst, through elections held in five days, not through NLRB election campaigns that give companies several weeks of “employer free speech” rights to smash workers’ organizing efforts. Canada’s “Rand Formula” grants dues payments to unions from all represented workers, in contrast to union-weakening “right-to-work” laws in the United States requiring unions to represent non-paying free riders. The threat of permanent replacement looms over any strike decision by American workers, while permanent replacement of striking workers is unlawful in Canada. In their North American version of European social democracy, Canadians enjoy national health insurance while U.S. workers deal with a patchwork of employer-based health plans that provokes constant strife, strikes, and cuts in benefits. Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz throw a bucket of cold water on this wide-eyed American view of labour affairs north of the border. Their third edition of From Consent to Coercion: The Assault on Trade Union Freedoms carefully details many ways in which Canadian labour law and practice run afoul of international standards on labour rights, and how Canada’s Supreme Court has interpreted the nation’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms to constrict workers’ freedom of association. In the time of NAFTA and a looming Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, crafting a social dimension in trade pacts requires critical understanding of labour law and practice among trading partners. This book is an important contribution to labour policy debates for the spotlight it turns on Canada, driving home the insight that no country comes to the labour rights debate with totally clean hands. The most common breach of workers’ rights in Canada takes the form of back-to-work legislation putting an end to strikes with government-imposed settlements instead of terms negotiated between bargaining parties. What started as exceptional action in the post World War II period (the age of “consent” in the title) has become standard operating procedure for federal and provincial governments. In the quarter-century after 1950, governments ended strikes with back-to-work legislation 32 times. The number rose to 115 imposed strike settlements from 1975 to 2002, reflecting the turn to “coercion.” Panitch and Swartz analyze the trend not just by looking at the numbers. They tell an important story about political and economic dynamics that drove the move from consent to coercion. The story has ironies, too: Chapter 3 starts with a ringing quote from young Pierre Elliot Trudeau defending workers’ right to strike, then details ways in which Prime Minister Trudeau broke strikes. Ending strikes by legislative mandate was one coercive measure against workers’ freedom of association. Federal and provincial governments also acted to exclude various categories of workers from any collective bargaining rights at all, or from the right to strike. In other instances, governments shoehorned workers into bargaining units of governments’ definition rather than workers’ choice. Panitch and Swartz show how the dramatic increase in Canadian back-to-work orders, exclusions, and bargaining unit changes was reflected in the volume of complaints against Canada before the International Labour Organization’s Committee on Freedom of Association. In roughly the same quarter-century periods just noted, cases against Canada accounted for less than five percent of all cases against G-7 advanced industrial democracies up to 1975 (only four complaints out of 123 total), but for more than 40 percent of all cases from 1975-2001 (62 out of 142) and a shocking 83 …