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Shadows of protesters holding letters spelling the word "SHAME" are seen on Wisconsin's state capitol after Republicans pushed through a controversial bill that will strip public workers unions of most of their bargaining rights on Thursday, March 10, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin. (MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Shadows of protesters holding letters spelling the word "SHAME" are seen on Wisconsin's state capitol after Republicans pushed through a controversial bill that will strip public workers unions of most of their bargaining rights on Thursday, March 10, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin. (MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Will Wisconsin's chill on labour move north? Add to ...

In late 2009, Wisconsin became the first state to require schools to include "the history of organized labour in America and the collective-bargaining process" in social-studies curricula. That was when Democrats ran the state.

Now, with Republicans in charge, the state where public-sector bargaining was born is writing its obituary. It truly is one for the history books.

For nearly a month, thousands of public-sector workers and their supporters have protested daily outside - and even inside - the Wisconsin Capitol. Democratic senators took refuge across the state line in Illinois to deny Governor Scott Walker the quorum needed to put his "budget-repair bill" to a vote.

By Wednesday night, Mr. Walker had had enough. He reintroduced the bill's most controversial provisions in a separate piece of non-budgetary legislation to get around the quorum rule. It sailed through the Senate in, literally, five seconds, and through the Assembly on Thursday.

For the American labour movement, this could be its Battle of Gettysburg. Already a spent force in the private sector, unions now face a fight for survival in the public sector as legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere - even Michigan - move to impose new labour laws.

If Canadian unions think that they are immune from the Tea Party politics that have triggered this radical shift, they may be in for a shock. Public-sector unionization rates are 71 per cent here, compared with 37 per cent there, but as the labour fortress of the U.S. North falls, the once-formidable unions of the Great White North may follow.

That great explainer of the differences between the U.S. and Canada, Seymour Martin Lipset, once posited that higher unionization rates simply reflected this country's collectivist mores.

"Canada, by retaining British institutions and Tory values, created a society and a culture that are more statist, group-oriented, communitarian, less individualistic and, ironically, social democratic," the American scholar wrote a decade before his death in 2006. South of the border, by contrast, laissez-faireism, individualism and populism created a hostile climate for unions.

But that analysis fails to account for regional differences within the U.S. After all, union density - the percentage of workers belonging to unions - was and is essentially the same in New York State as in Ontario. But, Norma Rae notwithstanding, the union movement never made inroads into the South.

Barely 4 per cent of all workers in North Carolina - the setting of that 1979 Oscar-honoured movie - belong to unions. In Texas, it's about 5 per cent. It's below 7 per cent in South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

So it's the South that explains the Canada-U.S. differential. The real divide on unionization historically is not the Canadian border but the Mason-Dixon Line.

In the private sector, that metaphorical line has long been creeping north. Union density among private companies has plummeted to 7 per cent in the U.S. and 16 per cent in Canada.

Now, the demarcation appears about to be erased altogether.

The new Wisconsin law, for example, is sweeping. It ends collective bargaining for state workers, except on base wages. It makes negotiated pay raises above inflation subject to approval by voters in a statewide referendum. It requires unions to hold recertification votes annually and ends the practice of withholding union dues on employee paycheques.

It sounds draconian, heavy-handed and, to some, just plain mean. It smacks more of politics than economics (organized labour remains the biggest source of Democratic funding).

Yet what seems revolutionary in Wisconsin has long been the norm in most of the South. The North is only playing catch-up.

The golden era of private-sector unions lasted from the Depression until the 1970s. The corporate sector in both Canada and the U.S. then was organized along largely oligopolistic lines.

Sure, there was only one phone company and it cost a day's pay to call Mom in Kapuskasing, Ont. But price regulation and the absence of competition allowed for fat bottom lines that enabled companies to provide rising wages and benefits. Their workers unionized in droves to increase their share of the pie (in part to pay that phone bill).

Both sides of the bargaining table would have been content to see this arrangement endure. Why it broke down is the subject of much debate. But Walter Russell Mead of the journal The American Interest offers as compelling explanation as any: Simply put, the forces of deregulation were too strong.

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