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Our infatuation with the non-work ethic

Globe and Mail Update

By all precedents, Canada is out of step. It is historically possible to infer that, when the British and Americans move in a general political direction, Canadians (or at least English Canadians) will also--not to imitate but in response to the same factors that motivated those other countries.

Perhaps the highest compliment paid to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal was that even the hapless R. B. Bennett was mobilized to a deathbed imitation of it. The interminable Mackenzie King was quite compatible with Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover (if not Warren Harding), then accommodated to the New Deal; emulated Neville Chamberlain in his obsequious overtures to Adolf Hitler, and Winston Churchill and Roosevelt at warmaking; and concluded his extraordinary career with a return to social legislation (such as the baby bonus) reflective of some of the measures of Harry Truman and even Clement Attlee, while adopting (albeit hesitatingly) a suitably belligerent stance as a Cold Warrior. Lester Pearson's Sixty Days of Decision in 1963 was a doughty attempt to harmonize with the Kennedy New Frontier (such flourishes as the Company of Young Canadians being inspired by the Peace Corps). At the same time, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was attempting an equally ambitious transfiguration in seeking to emulate the much-vaunted style of the Kennedys. That was a temptation that John Diefenbaker, mercifully, resisted. It was under Pierre Trudeau when--reacting to his original personality and the requirements of the Quebec situation and against the racial problems and Vietnam involvement of the United States--Canada began to define a political trajectory not parallel to that of Britain or the United States.

As Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan struggled to reduce their countries' share of the Gross National Product consumed by the public sector, and to revive a policy of containment toward the Soviet Union, Canada continued, under Trudeau, to apply extravagant economic "policy prescriptions" devised by profligate tinkerers, and, internationally, to posture sometimes virtually as a neutral between the West and the Soviet bloc. While Reagan fired striking air-traffic controllers and has deregulated an airline industry that is downsizing and de-unionizing itself, our political leadership has been afraid to cross picket lines set up with the help of the United Auto Workers against Canada's federally owned airline. (Even that circumstance may not have emboldened the Prime Minister to return to regular use of his official aircraft.) At a time when Thatcher has forced British unions to employ genuine secret-ballot procedures on strike votes, and U.S. organized labor is scrambling to become more co-operative with employers and more internationally competitive, Canada still seems to be steeped in a campy 1930s mythology that labor agitation is "progress", and that the facilitation of strikes, closed shops, and rigid job classifications is, as Ontario's new Labor Minister seems to believe, "reform".

In the United States, organized labor is in full retreat. Its representation of non-agricultural working people not in managerial or professional positions has fallen below 20%--less than half of the Canadian figure--and in states with sustained, positive economic growth (an area that includes the Sun Belt and the Western States) the figure is less than 10%. Strikes are rare, while in Britain, workers have lately, for the first time since the General Strike of 1926, taken to rejecting their leaderships' exhortations to strike.

In Canada, the insanely expensive and self-destructive strike procedure is still unctuously invoked and reverently respected. Bob White is lionized not only for his pleasant personality, evident intelligence, and pioneering activities on behalf of the Canadian United Auto Workers, but also for his antique and protectionist militancy. The incentive system, hinged closely to productivity gains, is much in vogue not only in the countries we traditionally track in lock step, but is also encouraged by the competitive Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans; and now by the disillusioned French, beleaguered West Germans, awakening Chinese; and even by the current Pope, the present head of the Gandhi dynasty, and possibly even the new master in the Kremlin. Canada, despite some doubtless sincere rhetorical flourishes by Michael Wilson and Brian Mulroney and a couple of the premiers, has not really promoted any revision of the most slothful and retrograde attitudes of organized labor. We must and do have laws to protect employees against capricious and exploitative employers. (There are non-legal penalties for mere incompetence.) Now we need protection from irresponsible labor leaders.

It will be difficult to calm the Canadian labor climate as long as about 36% of the membership of the Canadian Labor Congress is in public service unions where, from their comparative sinecures, they are free to incite or endorse a degree of labor militancy enjoying no relationship at all with the competitive requirements of the private sector. Though hardly anti-American, I yield to few of my countrymen in espousal of as independent a course for this country as we can practically pursue. I am not convinced, however, that the best definition of that course is to continue to languish, catatonic in a liberal torpor, while our friends and competitors exorcise their economies of absurd notions of the idyllic worker state.

The necessary evolution of our national political consensus is not assisted by our tendency to uncritical tolerance of foolish leftist opinions. Not even the amiable personality of Ed Broadbent should suffice to excuse him from the consequences of many of his policy proposals.

An obvious example is the New Democratic Party's advocacy of Canada's departure from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a step that even Andreas Papandreou's Greece has not girded itself to take. The suggestion is that we replicate the policy course chosen by France. Does this mean we shall, like France, have compulsory military service and nuclear weapons, and the fourth-largest navy in the world? Similarly, Ed Broadbent was allowed to get away with his preposterous allegations last year that thousands of wealthy Canadians were grossly undertaxed. While a few shelters are available, most of the few high income, low effective tax rates are traceable to prior years' losses. Does the NDP advocate the disallowance of such losses?

Though it is less drearily and reflexively liberal than it was 10 or 15 years ago, the academic-journalistic complex has biases that are still fairly obvious. The media were almost uniformly respectful of the fatuous intervention of the Social Affairs Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops against the T. Eaton Co. in May, when 340 of its employees remained on strike (that group represented less than 1% of the company's work force). Their muddled excellencies alleged, among many rank fictions, that Eaton's had denied its employees the right to form a union or to bargain collectively (the Ontario Labor Relations Board determined otherwise); that Eaton's had engaged in an unfair policy of layoffs (there have been no layoffs in that company in nearly four years); and that Eaton's had unfairly waited out its disgruntled employees. In fact, the same union came to terms with the striking employees of the World's Biggest Bookstore (Coles) on much less generous terms than those which Eaton's offered at the outset and throughout, and in a fraction of the time of the Eaton's strike.

If Canada is serious about reducing unemployment, it will have to learn, as almost all other sophisticated countries have learned, that the answer does not lie in demagogic appeals to more redistribution of wealth. The answer lies in building secondary industry from its present narrow geographic and product base in largely automobile-related, mainly branch- plant industries between Windsor and Oshawa and around Montreal. To do this, we will need exchange rate stability, labor peace, access to U.S. markets, attractiveness to domestic and foreign capital for manufacturing and service investments, greater productivity and an accepted policy of compensation increases for merit and cost-of-living adjustments only. And, without reverting to slavish concert with the Anglo-Americans, we will have to turn our public, political and economic debate into a more serious exchange than it has been.

The first task of the federal and provincial governments should be to compel the detachment of the public service unions from the industrial trade unions, and to revoke this antediluvian nonsense of the right to strike in public service--and against the public interest.

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