Digging Down: The Deep Roots of Canada's Policy-Making Process

Written by guest blogger, Taylor Hollander.

It is no revelation that the union density rates in both Canada and the United States have experienced significant decreases since the 1960s. But why has the decline in the U.S. been so much sharper? The two countries share similar employers, unions, and decentralized industrial relations systems. For many years, they even had comparable union membership levels. Yet, in 2017, the percentage of unionized workers in Canada’s private sector was more than twice as high as the United States. No state in the U.S. had a greater union density rate than Alberta, the least unionized province in Canada. In light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Janus v. AFSCME, which removed mandatory dues payments in public sector unions, it is not difficult to understand why some pundits argue that the historical moment for unionism in the United States has now passed.

To better understand this cross-national divergence in union density rates, Power, Politics, and Principles looks to the making of labour law in Canada for answers. In particular, against the backdrop of the U.S. experience, it focuses on PC 1003 of 1944, which for the first time required Canadian employers to recognize and negotiate with the representatives of their employees’ choosing. Several earlier studies have highlighted differences in the legal frameworks for industrial relations in Canada and the United States like, for example, the use of permanent replacements or “scabs.” What Power, Politics, and Principles does differently is dive into the history of the policy-making process to uncover how the topic of compulsory collective bargaining became a part of the national discourse in Canada and then became a legal reality. The main argument of the book is that, unlike in the United States, a more moderate approach to labour policy formulation in Canada made the legal protections for workers less vulnerable to conservative backlash in the long run.

There are several reasons why I believe that Power, Politics, and Principles will appeal to a wide audience:

  1. By comparing why and how collective bargaining regimes or the legal frameworks for industrial relations were created in Canada and the United States, it goes beyond vague discussions of cultural values to gain a more tangible and precise understanding of what distinguishes the two countries. As I mention in the book, the goal is not to consecrate the Canadian experience because industrial relations in the two countries are more alike than different. But a close study of what actually happened in the policy-making process does reveal important national variances.
  2. Power, Politics, and Principles underscores the messiness of the policy-making process. Throughout the book, the different perspectives and agendas of workers, labour leaders, business executives, civil servants, and politicians are examined to try and convince readers that the making of a collective bargaining regime in Canada involved many competing personalities. Rather than straightforward or certain, it was open-ended and contingent. For example, one of the arguments I make is that an ad hoc wartime agency of three people from outside the government - a conservative, a liberal, and a socialist - played a key role in convincing politicians that it was time for a compulsory collective bargaining policy.
  3. My book adds to the historiography on Mackenzie King. As Christopher Dummitt recently outlined in Unbuttoned, scholarly works on Canada’s longest serving prime minister have for a long time offered remarkably critical, if not bewildered, interpretations of his legacy. Most historians, political scientists, and journalists seem to agree that King took a Machiavellian approach to policy-making, never committing to anything unless it served his own purposes. In contrast, I encourage readers to consider the impact of his political principles. There is no doubt that King was a consummate politician who acted opportunistically, expediently, and obliquely. At least in the area of labour policy, however, it seems clear that his political principles also influenced his actions and inactions.
  4. Organized chronologically from 1935 to 1948, Power, Politics, and Principles conveys the complexities of the policy-making process in a compelling narrative, evoking a sense of time, place, and character without sacrificing analysis or argument. By emphasizing story line, avoiding jargon, and, in places, offering what one reviewer called “historical imaginings,” readers are transported back to two of the most turbulent decades in Canada’s history when real people battled both physically and verbally over the legal rights of workers.

 

Taylor Hollander is a Middle School History Teacher at Orchard House School in Richmond Virginia and the author of Power, Politics, and Principles.