Contributing editor Mark Bourrie takes bets on what Stephen Harper has planned for his “legacy” move.
In 1985, Margaret Thatcher broke the coal miners’ union in the U.K. For years, the National Union of Mineworkers had been the country’s most powerful trade union. It had toppled Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath’s government in 1974. Now was time for payback. Thatcher had already won the Falklands War. She had beaten a foreign enemy, she said, and now she would “destroy the enemy within”. Six strikers died in the 1984-1985 coal strike. Many more were tear-gassed and beaten with truncheons. Thatcher used mounted police, armed strike-breakers, and turned M15 against the union’s leaders.
When the coal miners’ union collapsed, the rest of Britain’s trade union movement fell apart. Breaking the strike was Thatcher’s greatest domestic success, one that has re-made the British workplace into the delightful place it is today.
My friends and I have a pool going about Stephen Harper’s coal mine strike moment. To get into the $5 pool, you have to come up with something batshit crazy that the Harper government will do this year. Corporate tax reductions aren’t crazy enough to meet that threshold, but prediction of a flat tax does. With the level of paranoia in Ottawa, some of the predictions have been, um, somewhat extreme.
- Bring back the Red Ensign flag? That’s one bet, but it’s not mine.
- I chose to predict the government will eliminate at least two out of three of these federal departments: Transport, Canadian Heritage, and the National Capital Commission.
- One of my co-workers suggested the Harper regime will grab the Civic Holiday in August and rename it Freedom Day. (I’d make a side bet that they’d rename Labour Day.)
- Then there’s the possibility of bringing back capital punishment. Or the return of the lash in prisons to maintain discipline. The latter would probably be knocked down by the courts, though there are supporters of the idea among the old Reformers.
None of those, however, would be a real Margaret Thatcher moment that would show Canada and the world what a tough guy Harper is. He needs something at least as photogenic as the 1970 October Crisis, when Pierre Trudeau deployed troops with guns onto the streets of Montreal and Ottawa. (Trudeau jailed nearly 200 journalists. During the Second World War, Mackenzie King detained none.)
Forcing the Gateway Pipeline through would not make the cut. Nor would killing the CBC, although that one’s close to the threshold.
One of our pool entrants came up with something that would really do the trick: “Right to Work” legislation for the public service. That would give federal public servants the right to refuse to pay union dues and join the Public Service Alliance or one of the smaller professional unions that represent federal employees. I’d bet that very few government employees would actually choose to opt out of union membership, but that doesn’t matter. PSAC and the other unions would be forced to strike to defend themselves.
It’s pretty much a no-loser for Harper, for the same reason that Thatcher couldn’t lose with the coal miners. Like Britain in 1984, Canada’s in an economic slump. There’s a widening gap in wages between union and non-union workers. For some perverse reason, many workers would rather see the union wages ground down, rather than fight for higher pay and benefits.
And, for years, and with some reason, federal public servants have been portrayed as inefficient featherbedders who are “takers” not “makers.”
Break the federal public sector unions, and you’ve pretty much gutted what remains of the labour movement, since offshoring destroyed private sector industrial unions years ago. The Caterpillar strike in London, Ontario, shows just how much labour’s back is to the wall.
I wish I had made that bet. But maybe there will be no Margaret Thatcher moment for Stephen Harper. Perhaps he will govern like Bill Davis and Leslie Frost, and even Dalton McGuinty, as a sort of caretaker who makes change incrementally, if at all.
But in this town, very few people are willing to make that bet.