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Ontario and the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement

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The president of a 130,000 member union like OPSEU, with 500 bargaining units and collective agreements, learns a lot about the art of negotiations. So, I am surprised by the one-sided commentary about the agreement recently inked between Canada and the European Union (EU). Comments from our federal political parties coupled with media reports can lead us to only one conclusion about the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA): The EU employs incompetent negotiators. 

According to our prime minister, Canada made big gains while giving up little. We achieved access to a large, rich market. Tens of thousands of new jobs for Canadians with cheaper prices are around the corner along with high quality European goods. We did this even though the EU gross domestic product is $16.36 trillion (US); 10 times larger than the $1.82 trillion (US) Canadian GDP. Wow! 

Europeans are not stupid. Early indications show they will get free access to a 35-million person cheese and wine market. Reduced duties on EU cars and trucks will have more Canadians sitting at the wheel of a Mercedes or BMW, while our auto industry declines. We have yet to see who will end up on top.

I know the truth will eventually reveal itself. By removing controls, trade agreements increase competition. Competition results in winners and losers. For corporations, winning comes from reduced regulation, lower wages and reduced labour standards. When average people protest the response will be rhetoric about uncontrolled trends in the global economy (whatever that means).

Free trade sacrifices sovereignity, people and nations to world markets. CETA means Canadians will lose more control over their destiny. With it, we will not benefit from, nor avoid, global trends whether good or bad.

A short time ago, Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty made comments about EU members Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. They mirrored statements from Wall Street. Wall Street regards these fabulous European destinations as “the PIGS.” These days financial markets are obsessed with PIGS. The PM and Wall Street say these countries are in economic trouble due to high public spending. They say austerity and public service cuts are the cure for these economic problems. Finance Minister Flaherty used this to convince Canadians that cuts to our public services and workers will prevent a slide into a similar plight. More than 60,000 public sector workers lost their jobs as a result. 

Months later, the PM now says our future depends on the same European nations. What changed? Political timing did.

CETA will be approved in 2015, the year of our next federal election. Delays can be expected for CETA ratification, given that 10 provinces and 28 EU members will have to first approve the yet unseen details. The promise of a bright CETA economic future can be sustained through the federal election campaign while the reality will be revealed after the vote. Conservative strategists see this as great timing for Harper even though it’s bad timing for Canadians. We will lose our chance to hold the Conservatives to account for the CETA. 

Trade agreements seldom consider the interests of ordinary people. CETA belongs to big business. EllisDon Construction will benefit from it. EllisDon lobbies and contributes to Ontario’s Progressive Conservative and Liberal parties. This was why it could have private member’s legislation written and presented in the Ontario legislature to override court challenges to a Labour Relations Board decision that allowed it to hire non-union workers, even though it signed contracts not to do so.  

When EllisDon faces problems Liberal and Conservative politicians weigh in. In the past, during OPSEU’s efforts to support community college part-time workers, this was not the case. When college lawyers tied up the procedure by using aspects of the weak governing legislation, politicians sat on their hands. Delays at the labour board ground down the rights of part-time college workers, who were trying to win the right to bargain collectively.

A successful economy balances the interests of the public and private sectors. It works when the sectors come together to create wealth that we all can share. The private sector is a great wealth producer. Even so, it lacks the ability to fairly distribute the riches. Public sector regulations, services and oversight assure fairness so that few are left behind. 

CETA will not save the day. CETA is code for lower wages, standards and greater corporate power over every Canadian. 

Spain, Poland, Italy and the Netherlands have faced recent hardship. Now, so may we. For those who like acronyms, that spells SPIN.

We need a Canadian solution based on joint strategies built by government, industry, community groups and unions. We must retain the right to control our economy and destiny. That goes against the principles of CETA. After all, sovereignty is what we lose when we enter into international free trade agreements.

Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President

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