Warren Buffett, one of the richest men on the planet, has frequently referred to the class war being waged in the United States.
There’s one happening in Canada, too, but we don’t talk much about it and we certainly don’t have any super-rich Canadians boldly admitting to one.
Mr. Buffett has said the rich are not just making the war, they are also winning.
Of course, the rich have a lot of help from politicians and governments who do their bidding by refusing to make them pay their share, by refusing to enact fair regulations, and by making the middle class and the poor pay for their mistakes and their greed.
Today that war is being played out on the streets of Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, where unionized workers are fighting for their piece of democracy, their right to collective bargaining and their right to a union.
The workers, tens of thousands of them, have been marching in the streets for days now, resisting
the union-busting tactics of their Republican governor, a Wisconsin politician heavily supported by the super wealthy and ultra-conservative Koch brothers.
The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, manufactured a budget crisis by handing out huge tax breaks a few weeks ago and now, in addition to demanding major concessions from public-sector workers in order to balance the budget, he wants to take away their collective bargaining rights — forever.
Mr. Walker has not been coy about his plans. He has admitted that he would like his actions to be the catalyst for union busting in other American states.
Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist, said what Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a Third World oligarchy. In other words, power will rest with a small number of people — mostly rich people.
Krugman said, “that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.” Unions, he says, are among the most important of institutions in providing that counterweight.
This class war isn’t just occurring south of the border. While governments in Canada have not gone quite as far as Governor Walker, there has been a concerted and consistent attack on unions, collective bargaining and labour rights in Canada too.
In recent days, Quebec passed back-to-work legislation against government lawyers. Ontario is drafting legislation banning the right to strike for transit workers. In the past 30 years, governments in Canada have passed more than 190 pieces of legislation attacking unions and collective bargaining. And yet the Supreme Court has been pretty clear about the right to collective bargaining.
“Recognizing that workers have the right to bargain collectively as part of their freedom of association reaffirms the values of dignity,
personal autonomy, equality and democracy that are inherent in the Charter,” the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2007.
Labour rights erosion
Since the early 1990s, provincial labour laws have been changed and eroded, making it more difficult to join a union. The provincial Liberals did so in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Labour laws have also not kept pace with the times. Globalization, the growth of multinationals and the concentration of corporate power has changed the balance of power at the collective bargaining table. And yet no labour code across the country has been modernized to accommodate the new economic times in which we live by protecting workers’ rights from the onslaught of global corporate power.
Of course, that’s because governments haven’t been exactly defending labour rights. Indeed, some governments have been a large part of the problem. The Harper Conservatives, who clearly have studied the Republican playbook, have done plenty, as a minority government, to attack labour rights.
It has included poisoned pills in budget bills that have nothing to do with budgets, such as a new law that prevents federal unions from fighting for pay equity. It has imposed agreements, rather than bargained them.
During the recent recession, the Harper government forced unionized workers to take concessions or their industry would not receive government loans. Today, corporations about to receive another
$6 billion in tax cuts do not have to do anything in return — just hold their hands out.
George Lakoff, author and professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of Berkley, says it’s all about what Conservatives want. Conservatives like Harper or Walker do not think the government should help citizens or help each other.
“The part of government they want to cut is not the military, not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people. Why? Because that violates individual responsibility,” says Prof. Lakoff.
Despite Canada’s budget deficit, the Harper Conservatives are planning to spend $16 billion on fighter jets, billions more on prisons and fighting a declining crime rate, and another $6 billion in corporate tax cuts. This is in addition to the billions of tax cuts already delivered to corporate Canada. Add it all up and we will have a manufactured budget crisis too. Add it all up and we can expect someone is going to have to pay. It’s likely to be those parts of government that help people.
And the insanity of it all is while working people struggle to hang on to what they have, those who caused the crisis in the first place have gone about their merry way, raking in billions and billions in profits and bonuses, leaving the dirty work and the war to their political puppets.
Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column returns March 12.