The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses is doing Harper’s dirty work

[Bullshit] comes in three flavours. One, making bad things sound like good things. Organic, all-natural. Because factory-made sugar oatmeal balls doesn’t sell. Patriot Act. Because “Are you scared enough to let me look at all your phone records” Act doesn’t sell. So whenever something’s been titled Freedom Family Fairness Health America, take a good long sniff. Chances are it’s been manufactured in a facility that may contain traces of bullshit…

Jon Stewart

Today I want to look at a sneaky way that ideology gets passed off as informed opinion in news coverage: by hiding behind a front of bullshit. Specifically, I’m going to look at the impartial way one business group gets presented in coverage of the new Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP), and the extremely partisan and political reality behind their pseudo-reasonable front.

I’m not going to talk too much about the ORPP itself – I’m not even going to take a position for or against. Instead, I just want to use it as a case study of how right-wing advocacy organizations get their talking points taken seriously and presented as informed opinion or even fact.

Let’s begin, shall we?

The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB) is a business lobbying organization that says they like to stick up for the little guy:

With the strength of over 109,000 small business owners from coast-to-coast – entrepreneurs just like you – the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) is the big voice for small businesses. For over 40 years, we have represented the interests of the small business community to all three levels of government in their fight for tax fairness, reasonable labour laws and reduction of regulatory paper burden.

Before we dive into demolishing the shit out of them, let’s just take a moment to admire how well-crafted this advertising copy is. They’re fighting for fairness, their cause is reasonable, and they want to reduce your burdens. What’s not to like?

They make a lot of the fact that they don’t accept outside donations and are strictly non-partisan. And as for the idea that they have a right-wing agenda, well, let’s just let their President, Dan Kelly, shake his head and laugh that notion away (caution: the link is to a HuffPo advertorial, so click at your own discretion):

I can only laugh and shake my head when the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) is occasionally accused of being a “right-wing” organization…

The simple answer is that CFIB isn’t right-wing or left-wing — we’re pro-small business. In fact, so are all of Canada’s mainstream political parties, and (nearly) the entire country.

See? A totally benign advocacy group fighting for the rights of small business owners! Balanced! Reasonable! Super-middle-of-the-road! You probably agree with them and you don’t even know it yet!

They’re also, in the grand scheme of things, not very well known outside of policy circles. So when they get quoted in news articles about economic policy, your standard reader is just gonna gloss over the bullshitty name without thinking about it.

Like for instance in this CBC article about the Ontario government’s new pension plan:

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business says most small businesses in Ontario are against the proposal.

“Our members are telling us they are looking at cutting the number of positions they have, or at least not hiring as much as they would have liked to,” Corinne Pohlmann, CFIB’s senior vice-president of national affairs, told CBC News Network.

She said the ORPP could discourage entrepreneurship.

The CBC isn’t alone in treating the CFIB as a credible source to quote on the issue – you’ll find similar quotes or mentions in coverage from the Star, the Sun, and the Citizen, for instance. The Financial Post even ran an op-ed by a CFIB economist opposing the whole scheme, claiming it could be a wild conspiracy to fund political projects the provincial government favours.

So who really is behind the CFIB and what really is their agenda? Let’s take a closer look at some of the causes they’ve taken up in the past few years.

Higher wages for workers have been a major target of the organization. For instance, when Rachel Notley’s NDP won the Alberta provincial elections earlier this year, the CFIB immediately started kicking up a shitstorm over the proposed minimum wage increase:

CFIB analyst Amber Ruddy said small businesses would have to reduce workers’ hours, cut back training and, in some cases, eliminate jobs to cope with such a large wage increase.

“A CFIB study found that for every 10 per cent increase in the minimum wage, 90,000 to 300,000 jobs are at stake. So a huge 50 per cent increase in Alberta’s minimum wage will definitely have a devastating impact on small business owners and Albertans across the province,” Ruddy said.

She said most people earning minimum wage are young people living with their parents.

Which quite simply isn’t true – for instance, Statistics Canada reports that as of 2009, 41% of minimum wage earners were over the ages of 25, with nearly 10% being over the age of 55. Moreover, 60% of workers earning less than $15/hr (the proposed new minimum wage in Alberta) are over 25, with 35% being over 40.

But it’s a talking point that you’ll hear CFIB spokespeople repeating again and again. For instance, here’s former CFIB president Catherine Swift basically saying that minimum wage workers have no one to blame but themselves:

The organization even went so far as to call on businesses to stop donating to the United Way after UW commissioned a report which concluded that a true living wage in Halifax would be double the current minimum wage:

“If you’re a small business, do you support the United Way playing an advocacy role for a $20 minimum wage?” asked Jordi Morgan, the federation’s Atlantic vice-president. The report released Monday estimates Halifax’s living wage to be $20.10 per hour. The document describes living wage as a measure of the actual costs to live and raise a family in a specific community. The report was prepared by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and commissioned by the United Way of Halifax at a cost of $23,000. The president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business criticized United Way for its involvement in the economic report.

You may have noticed that Kelly was pretty vague in terms of who exactly calls the CFIB a “right-wing” organization. One group openly doing so is CUPE, which has been vocal in denouncing CFIB’s research as politically motivated and grossly inaccurate:

Claims that public sector workers make significantly more than their private sector counterparts are simply untrue. The Canadian Union of Public Employees, representing over 630,000 workers across the country, mostly public sector workers, says its own research disproves recent claims by a right-wing interest group.

“The Canadian Federation of Independent Business’ so-called ‘research’ doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It is a cynical fantasy to further their ideological goal of driving down the wages of every Canadian worker,” said Moist, national president of CUPE. “There is ample evidence, backed up with reliable methodology, the wages of public and private sector workers are quite similar. The CFIB’s myth of the overpaid public sector worker is simply baseless.”

You don’t get angry rhetoric like that without some history. That’s some pretty personal name-calling. But it turns out that the CFIB has a long history of attacking public sector unions and their pension plans. This rabble article by David Climenhaga is from 2011, but it’s still super-relevant. It’s a long read, but basically Climenhaga methodically demolishes the notion that the CFIB is advocating against public pensions for the benefit of small businesses, as on balance these businesses would be the beneficiaries of Canadian-controlled pension plans.

The CFIB is not kicking public service pensions because they hurt entrepreneurs — they self-evidently do the opposite. It is obviously fighting them because of the cost to large employers, the choices they give to working people, and the clear way they demonstrate the benefit of union membership.

Unions, after all, help local independent businesses by bringing more cash into their communities and fighting for fairness for all citizens. Naturally, therefore, given their true agenda, unions are anathema to the CFIB and its ilk. Anything that can be done to weaken unions is part of the corporate right’s overall strategy to “defund the left.”

So the CFIB, as we’ve seen, has a strong anti-worker neoliberal agenda. But let’s take a step back here. They’ve taken on public sector unions, public pension plans, Rachel Notley’s NDP government, and most recently Kathleen Wynne’s ORPP.

Can you think of anybody else who’s been publicly attacking all of these people and plans and institutions?

Why, Stephen Harper, of course!

Harper, you’ll recall, used this year’s omnibus budget bill to enforce unnegotiated changes to the collective bargaining agreement on to public sector unions. Historically, Harper was an ideological opponent of the CPP, and has resisted all efforts to expand the pension plan. And of course Harper has very publicly attacked both Notley’s economic platform (“a disaster”) and Wynne’s pension plan this week, saying in particular that he was “delighted” that the federal government’s non-cooperation with the ORPP was making it more difficult for Ontario to implement.

It would be quite the coincidence if this overlap in targets was entirely by chance. But rather than just vaguely gesturing at the possibility of collaboration between the Conservative Party and the CFIB, let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?

To do so, we’re going to have to look at another bullshit front organization, one called “Working Canadians”. Sounds generic, right? Working Canadians, a relatively new arrival on the scene, wants to “fight back against union bosses” – in fact, their whole front page seems pretty devoted to attacking the unions. Prior to the writ being dropped, they put out ads attacking Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair. But what’s their role in all this?

Well, on their all-volunteer board of directors we find past CFIB president Catherine Swift (the one I twitter-quoted above), former CFIB advisor Bill Tufts, and Gisele Lumsden, who up until recently was a media contact for the CFIB (and there was some controversy due to the two roles overlapping for a while).

While the organization hasn’t explicitly endorsed Harper and the Conservatives, they’ve attacked all of his major rivals. Working Canadians also mounted a rigorous defence of Harper’s income-splitting plan, which most economists have called regressive and unnecessary. And check out this super-fun ad:

Now you’re gonna tell me there was no coordination on messaging between the CPC and Working Canadians on that one? “He’s just not up to the job” vs “He’s just not ready” coming at the end of a resume-reviewing session – that’s a pretty big coincidence, eh?

What we see here is that CFIB employees, including a past president, were able to smoothly transition into doing (pro bono) CPC hatchet work. The question of what’s in it for them is an open one, but I don’t think anybody believes they’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Nor is it coincidental that these three all went to work supporting the Conservative Party – after all, that’s exactly what they were doing in their work with the CFIB.

The moral of the story here is that obscure organizations which lobby on specific issues are not credible sources. Their arguments are often attached to ulterior agendas, and sometimes they even have fairly direct connections to political parties. When you see these bland acronyms and bullshit-tinged anodyne organizational names, proceed with extreme caution!!!

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