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Partisanship, Globalization, and Canadian Labour Market Policy: Four Provinces in Comparative Perspective

By Rodney Haddow, Thomas Klassen

November 4, 2013

Review By Marjorie Cohen

This is a book that I will use in two of my university courses: one on Canadian political economy and the other on labour policy. It is well researched, deals with issues that have immediate political significance, and has an approach that will stimulate classroom discussion. In this sense it is a rare and valuable classroom resource, and I hope that the University of Toronto Press will soon make it available in paperback so that students can afford to buy it.[1]

Rodney Haddow and Thomas Klassen examine how radical and permanent are the changes that are brought about by globalization and neoconservative governments. Their point of departure is the widespread recognition, following Esping-Anderson’s typography of welfare states, that large variations in public policy in European and North American nations are related to the level of development of the welfare state, historical factors, and political will in each nation. The assumption in this book is that governments with stronger histories as welfare states and successive governments with slight variations in political approaches will likely experience smaller market-oriented retrenchment of public policy than will states with more market-oriented liberal welfare state models and dramatic swings in political orientations.

Haddow and Klassen’s book differs from most studies that deal with globalization and the welfare state in that the authors look specifically at subnational governments and a particular set of public policy questions. Their focus is on labour policy changes between 1990 and 2003 that affect private-sector employment in four provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. They examine changes in policies related to industrial relations, active labour market measures such as training and skills development as well as social assistance for employable persons, and policies related to worker compensation, health and safety, and employment standards.

The variations in political histories in the four provinces provide interesting comparisons in a country where most labour policy comes under provincial jurisdiction. All four provinces have liberal, market-oriented economies, but there are significant differences in their economic and political systems. The findings are fairly detailed for each province and for each type of policy measure. However, basically, the overall finding is that neoliberal retrenchment is generally short term and tends to be significantly different among the provinces only with regard to employment standards and social assistance for employable persons. That is, either the province has had a specific political history such that new governments do not find labour policy contentious (Quebec, Alberta) or changes occur but are reversed by ideologically distinct governments (British Columbia, Ontario). This notion that Canada differs from countries like Britain and the United States in its readiness to embrace market-oriented pol icies conforms with a good number of ana lyses of the relative stability of the Canadian welfare state. Fortunately, the authors are sufficiently cautious about their conclusions. This is a relatively short period in which to be talking about longterm effects: in this, they are especially concerned about British Columbia, which has had fairly dramatic changes, beginning in 2001. These they were only able to examine for two years.

My main concern about the findings is that they apply only to policies related to the private sector, and it is the public sector that has had the most significant changes to its labour configurations in recent times. Haddow and Klassen say they focus exclusively on the private sector because the public sector has been well studied. While it is always reasonable to limit the scope of studies – just so they can eventually see the light of day – I’m not convinced of the validity of the authors’ justification in this case. Their main examples of enough work having already been done refer to studies on information garnered from the 1980s; that is, the period before the one upon which they focus. Much has happened in the public sector since 1990 that has unique implications for labour. Most significant is the degree of privatization; however, there was also the extraordinary precedent set by the BC government when it set aside a negotiated collective agreement by the Hospital Employees Union so that it could privatize hospital support work. This was an unprecedented and troubling event in Canadian labour history: when the state uses that kind of power against labour, it has a considerable effect on the labour relations regime.

My other concern is the lack of differentiation of policy implications for specific groups, particularly by gender. Including child care as an active labour market policy could have added considerably to an understanding of where provincial governments stand on gender and employment issues. What might look like minor changes in policy swings can be quite significant and longterm for distinct groups of workers.

I admire this book, and my criticisms should not deter those interested in labour policy from using it. My one hope is that, assuming the University of Toronto Press wants it to be used in classrooms, it will be provided with a bibliography and a better index.

[1 ] The practice of first issuing a text in an expensive hard-cover edition, then a year or so later issuing it in paperback, tends to discourage classroom use. The time-lag between when it is fi rst noticed by professors, when they are likely to incorporate it into a course, and when it is affordable for student use is too long.