Open season on Canada’s middle class

Lana Payne
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A really smart Catholic nun once told me that without anger, there was no hope.

I sure hope she was right, because there is going to be a lot of anger in the coming months if the first few weeks of a Harper majority are any indication.

Because make no mistake, the Harper government has just declared war on Canada’s middle class.

Last week’s federal budget was the first step in transforming not just the federal government, but our nation.

You can’t make the kind of massive spending cuts from federal government departments, programs and services that are currently planned by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his axe-man Tony Clement without there being a fundamental shift in the kind of government Canadians get.

One study estimates that in order to slash an additional $11 billion in programs and services, as many as 80,000 federal government jobs will have to be eliminated — that’s about one-third of the federal public service.

Labour economist Jim Stanford says the question for Canadians is not what should be cut, but why cut at all? The federal debt as a share of our GDP is already declining. The real deficit in Canada is stagnant and polarizing incomes, or growing income inequality.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are fully aware of what the federal spending cuts mean. They mean real jobs and real services — like the life-saving services provided by federal government workers at the St. John’s Marine Rescue Centre.

The decision by Harper and his government to gut the federal public service is not based on economics, it is based on ideology. It is about choices. Bad choices.

Had the Harper government chosen not to hand out another $6 billion in corporate tax cuts to some of the country’s richest corporations including oil companies and banks, there would be plenty of revenues to pay for the services on which we all depend.

Indeed, this $6 billion transfer of wealth to the richest businesses in Canada was enough to save tens of thousands of federal jobs and the services they provide (like saving lives), lift every Canadian senior out of poverty, and start a national child care and early learning program. $6 billion can buy a lot of good stuff or it can be soaked up in executive compensation or sit, with the other half-trillion dollars, in the cash column of corporate balance sheets.

But sharing the wealth is not the kind of Canada this government is interested in.

This reshaping of Canada is also reflected in the Harper government’s attack on unions and the hard fought-collective agreements that have helped to build our country’s middle class. That attack started in earnest last week with the swift decision by the (anti) Labour Minister Lisa Raitt to violate the labour rights of Canadian workers. 

No doubt about it. The Harper majority has ushered in a new reality — it is open season on working people and their unions. Just hours after Air Canada workers exercised their right to strike to bring pressure on the corporation to bargain more fairly with its concession-weary employees, the Harper government announced it would legislate the members of the CAW back to work.

 Unions and progressives who for years knew what a Harper majority would mean had their greatest fears confirmed.

This government would not support labour rights.

Indeed it would not even remain neutral. 

The threat to legislate back Air Canada workers is a blatant interference in the right to free collective bargaining. It also sent a very clear message that this government would be using the power of its majority to violate the legal rights of workers in our country.

And then within hours of Canada Post locking out its 50,000 workers, the Harper government indicated it might legislate these workers back as well.

The issues in both labour disputes are the same. Both employers want to strip collective agreements, including pensions. Both want a two-tier system so they can pay new employees less. The message to the next generation of workers is dismal.

And under the surface of this story of working people struggling to protect a decent living and retirement for themselves is one of hypocrisy, a growing income gap between the rich and the rest, and government collusion.

Take the CEO of Air Canada, Calin Rovinescu. He has held the job for about two years. In that time, he has seen his salary increase by 76 per cent in a single year to $4.55 million. He will be also paid a $5 million bonus in a few months and his “defined benefit” pension plan is worth about $3.1 million.

That’s his entitlement after two years. At the same time, at the bargaining table, he is attacking the pension of plan of Air Canada employees, including a proposal to slash the pensions of recent retirees.

This attack comes after a decade of concessions by Air Canada employees.

It is this kind of hypocrisy and assault on Canada’s middle class being supported by the federal government that could lead to the kind of social unrest we are witnessing around the world.

The Harper majority has emboldened those who now see this era as an opportunity to attack the very things that have created a middle class in our country.

The situation at Air Canada and Canada Post are but two examples.

Even in our own province, employer groups are feeling bolstered by Ottawa’s right-wing government as they attack the excellent work ethic of the working people of our province.

Is it any wonder people are angry? War has been declared against them.

Welcome to Harper majority time — open season on workers, unions, Canada’s middle class and the Canada as we know it.


Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at

Her column returns July 2.

Organizations: Air Canada, Canada Post, Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Canada, Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • Robin Brentnall
    June 18, 2011 - 13:38

    It's time Canadians took back what Harper has and will take away. Every union and middle class worker should strike with the demand that Harper and the Conservative Caucus resign or the Economy will be blown out of the water.

    • Herman Thind
      June 18, 2011 - 15:17

      The challenge (from an outside perspective) is one which many unions may not want to hear. Having knocked doors in every recent election I've seen the trend of union workers actually supporting the right wing party in Ottawa. Something about stock cars, Tim Hortons, feigned interest in hockey, and jingoistic cheerleading has appealed to far more than right wing ideologues. The Harper "populism" is leading to a real dilution of the facts behind actual political ideology. If you ask the "ordinary" voter what they think about specific issues - and what party ideologies say about them - most Canadians would fall comfortably into the center of the political spectrum. Instead, we see an appeal to machismo and arrogance (from the right) which is resonating, disguising real intentions. An appeal to "reality-TV politics"... and a slowly growing "core of ignorance". Fact is, unions are losing their hold on their own members. There is a slipping away of intentional, informed voting. This ignorance to realities of political ideology is leading to many voting for those whose actual policies my harm them. I find it very hard to believe that unions would be able to galvanize all (or even most) of their membership into national general strikes. There is a HUGE education task to be done to grow political awareness among Canada's middle class. Until then, jingoism, massive TV ad buys, and "hot-buttons" will rule the day.

    • Graeme
      June 18, 2011 - 19:58

      I'm afraid I have no sympathy for the 'middle class'. They are but the other half of the system that controls the poor - the carrot offsetting the stick which is wielded in the form of cops and prisons. In fact, it is members of the 'middle class' that staff these instruments of oppression.