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Tory prophet preaches union choice for canadian workers

Meet the young man who would be the father of right-to-work legislation in Canada.

Pierre Poilievre, at age 33, he has the prime minister’s confidence and his ear. He has been rightly tagged as one of the most powerful persons in the national capital, and is already in his fourth term as the MP for Nepean-Carleton.

The Stephen Harper government might dismiss suggestions that right-to-work legislation is on its agenda and Labour Minister Lisa Raitt may say there is a different culture in Canada, but there is nothing stealthy about Poilievre’s intentions as he spells them out over a cappuccino.

He calls it “workers’ freedom,” legislation that would give federal employees the option of paying union dues and joining their colleagues in a work stoppage.

“I am the first federal politician to make a dedicated push toward this goal,” he says. “I believe in free choice for workers and I am going to do my part to see that happens at the federal level, and I would encourage provincial governments to do likewise.

“I am going to work with cabinet and caucus colleagues to build support. Over time I believe I can convince people of its merits. And hope springs eternal that one day we will have free choice for workers in Canada.’’

Since Poilievre took his first step on this question, criticizing the Public Service Alliance of Canada for contributing to the campaign of the separatist Parti Québécois in September, organized labour has been ducking and weaving as attacks come with lightning speed.

A bill sponsored by a backbench Conservative MP, which would force unions to open their books and disclose the salaries of officers and their spending of dues, passed the Commons in a heartbeat and is now before the Senate.

Michigan, Ontario’s rust-belt neighbour, became the 24th state to pass right-to-work legislation.

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, currently leading provincial polls, said he backed right-to-work legislation for workers in Ontario.

Poilievre doesn’t buy this concept that collective bargaining and trade unions are somehow in the Canadian DNA, and he believes workers’ freedom mirrors individual freedom as a deeply ingrained Canadian trait.

Opponents, he says, are hung up on the U.S. experience and the domino of right-to-work states, which U.S. President Barack Obama has agreed is a race to the bottom. “The so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws — they don’t have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics,’’ Obama said in Michigan. “What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.’’

But Poilievre says this move away from “forced unionism” is now a worldwide phenomenon, pointing to court decisions in Sweden and Denmark backing workers who opted out of paying union dues.

But not all the opposition to his concept comes from a beleaguered Canadian union movement that rightly feels it is under siege.

Already, labour ministers in Quebec and Ontario have put in writing their concerns over the union transparency bill. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says it will never survive a court challenge.

Ontario’s Linda Jeffrey called it “inexplicably intrusive” and an “unwarranted interference with the collective bargaining process in Canada,” although she had to make her argument that it would threaten labour peace in Ontario over the chants of 35,000 striking teachers.

“Every labour organization that is spending its money in a way in which it should will have no labour unrest,’’ Poilievre says.

But opposition will be intense in this country. Union membership in Canada has dipped, but still sits at 31.7 per cent of workers. In the U.S. the number is 11.8 per cent.

Poilievre has become legendary in Ottawa for his “message discipline,’’ the man who handles the sleaze questions from his NDP tormentors in the Commons, tossing it back in kind, ceaselessly parroting talking points on “big union bosses,” “carbon tax’’ and Liberal malfeasance.

For the government, the discipline works. If you are outside government, it is merely annoying.

Initially, he was the francophone part of a team with Harper’s parliamentary secretary, Dean Del Mastro, but since Del Mastro was silenced by allegations of spending irregularities of his own, Poilievre has embarked on a solo career, a bit like Martin without Lewis or Mick without Keith.

“Some people say I am repetitious, but that’s because the truth doesn’t change,’’ he says.

That discipline should not be underestimated. He will spend 2013 talking about “freedom” and “choice,” and he won’t be knocked off message.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.



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