s wage controls were
relaxed in the late 1970s, more daunting problems appeared
on the horizon. A shift toward more conservative economic
attitudes begun around the time of the implementation of
wage controls was now in full swing. Conservative commentators
attacked the size of government and expenditures. Every
aspect of government regulation and spending came under
attack. This included such diverse targets as the size of
the state workforce and funding for education, medical, and
social assistance programs. In other words, demands were
being made to dismantle programs labour considered fundamental
to a just society.
This critique was quickly extended to the labour movement.
Public sector unions became the focus of much of this criticism.
Governments painted them as obstructionist, slow to change, and
insisted that their demands for job protection and reliable incomes
provided evidence of selfishness in a time of economic crisis. The
federal and provincial governments launched strenuous campaigns
against their employees' unions. Legislation reversed union's
collective bargaining rights and, in some instances, completely
suspended them. Public sector workers experienced extensive
government imposed controls on their incomes and benefits. Many
jobs were cut and others contracted out to non-union employers who
paid lower wages and provided minimum benefits.
Private-sector employers pressed for many of these changes in
negotiations with their own employees. They demanded from unions
concessions on wages, benefits, and work rules. A "flexible"
workforce became a key issue when management and workers sat
across the bargaining table from one another. Company officials
demanded the right to ignore job classifications and seniority
clauses in contracts in order to reduce labour costs and increase
productivity. Threats of layoffs and "downsizing," another catch
phrase of the 1980s, made worried workers concede to such demands.
The practice of downsizing (laying off workers and reorganizing
work, often with the aid of technology, to increase productivity)
meant the permanent loss of thousands of quality manufacturing jobs.
The unemployment situation worsened further when downsizing combined
with a general economic recession in the early 1980s or with the much
more serious depression of the 1990s.
The relentless pressure on unions from governments, the mass
media, and corporations left the labour movement reeling. Downsizing
and other layoffs brought a significant decline in union membership
in the traditionally well-organized mass-production and resource
industries. Canada's major railroads alone cut thousands of positions.
In the United States, a similar pattern of events reduced union
membership as low as 11 per cent of all wage earners. Declines in Canada
proved not to be as precipitous, primarily because of a more
effectively organized public-service sector. However, the declines
were sharp enough for media "experts" to predict the total collapse
of the labour movement.
Labour put new energy into electoral politics and was rewarded
with success in provincial politics. New Democratic Party (NDP)
governments held power for varying amounts of time in British
Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. In Quebec, the
Parti Québécois government's social policies paralleled those of
the NDP elsewhere. On the whole, these governments proved
sympathetic to labour. Improvements in health and safety legislation
offered workers more on the job protection and other measures
strengthened labour bargaining position in first contract
negotiations. However, intense differences sometimes arose between
labour and NDP governments over deficit-reduction programs,
especially those effecting health and social assistance.