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Why Unions Matter

Are unions more of a problem than a solution today?

Anti-union sentiment has accelerated since the global crisis of 2008 brought economies to their knees and left public finances in a mess.

Widespread frustration with fragile growth and soaring debt has been channeled towards unions, which are increasingly characterized as an elite, irrelevant, and a drag on the economy.

But consider this: No country has ever achieved widespread prosperity and created a large middle class without strong unions.

Generations of hard-fought union struggles brought Canadians the eight-hour day and the weekend; workplace health and safety legislation and employment standards; income supports for new parents and training for unemployed workers; public pensions and minimum wages; protections for injured workers and equal pay for equal work.

Unions helped organize the extension of these negotiated workplace-based achievements to the whole workforce through legislation.

The international evidence shows unequivocally that where unions are strong they reduce the pay gap between workers and management, men and women, racial minorities and other workers. All over the world unions are a major force in reducing inequality and poverty, and broadening access to basic supports for everyone.

But decades of watering down rules for capital investment and eroding workers’ statutory rights, combined with rapid globalization and technological change, has steadily shifted the balance of power towards employers.

As a result, median wages and incomes of those working full-time full-year are today no further ahead than they were in the late 1970s, taking inflation into account. The economy may have more than doubled since, but many workers without a collective voice have lost ground. Their numbers are rising.

Union density in Canada was 37.6% of the employed workforce in 1981. By 2010 it had fallen to 31.5%.

During that time, a rising share of the gains from economic growth went to higher corporate profits and elite pay-packages. In fact the richest 1% of Canadians took a stunning one-third of all income gains between 1997 and 2007. That compares to 8% in the 1960s.

Today, CEO pay packages swell by double digit increases every year – in good times and bad – even while Canada’s bosses put downward pressure on wages, pensions and benefits.

The future of the middle class is anything but assured, particularly for younger workers and newcomers who work in parts of the economy where unions have made little headway in organizing.

The stakes are huge, the path ahead uncertain.

A wave of corporate consolidation has emerged in the wake of the recession. As bigger corporations gobble up the smaller players and grow in market share and influence with governments, unions are increasingly the only countervailing voice to business interests.

Who else will speak out on behalf of the interests of the little guy, the people who need reliable public pensions and public goods like electricity, well-maintained roads and bridges, clean water, affordable health care and education, and good public transit?

Unions are key to ensuring gains from productivity improvements result in wide-spread prosperity, not just profits. A recent ILO study of 20 OECD countries found that a 1% increase in union density is associated with 1.5% reduction in incidence of low-wage employment.

To write off a strong union presence in Canada is to assure a smaller middle class and worsening inequality.

Ironically, domestic businesses need unions too: they ultimately rely on the rising purchasing power of the many, not the few, to deliver growth and profits.

Healthy and dynamic labour relations contribute to workplace innovation, economic development, and a large and vibrant middle class essential to a healthy democracy.

That’s exactly what’s in jeopardy for the next generation of Canadian workers. And that’s why Canada needs unions, now more than ever.

Bruce Campbell and Armine Yalnizyan are members of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (http://www.behindthenumbers.ca/2011/10/03/why-unions-matter/) 

News Archive

Testimonial

“They have demonstrated the dedication and leadership that
our Local requires. They have always provided sound counsel, support, and frank
discussion on matters involving the members, contract negotiations and our
Local.“ 

- Bruce Tillapaugh –Shop Steward. Island Farms, Victoria

"I was employed for many years at a Teamster company that was shut down due to the economy. Because of my age, I was worried about starting over. Bobby, Bob and Paul not only negotiated a much better severance package than was in the contract, but they also went the extra mile and got me on at one of their other companies with an even better contract.They continued to help me even though it wasn't their job to."

- Armando Borean

For 35 years I have been a Teamster and a Dairyworker, I was a young kid needing a job in tough economic times. I found a place to work and make a living, I learned to work together with others having varying and different backgrounds than my own.

Much has changed for me personally and professionally, I got married to my beautiful wife of almost 25 years and we have raised two amazing children, both of whom are presently studying abroad. Both of my children were recipients of Hoffa Memorial Scholarship Funding.

So much of my success I can credit to having a well paying union job. The Teamsters have been a great union for me, negotiating strong collective agreements that held good wage and benefit packages as well as the cornerstone beliefs of seniority and workers’ rights. The Teamsters gave me a good wage and a voice.

I have always been an active Teamster, and now I sit on Local 464's Executive Board.

There can be a great degree of personal feelings when the word union is mentioned, but so often I look at professional associations and realize the name may be different, but the thought is the same...strength in numbers.

As I get toward the end of my career, I look forward to the thought of receiving the Teamsters Canada Pension Plan, and I am so grateful for the belief others had before me that Teamsters deserved a good and decent retirement...thank you.

Drew


- Drew Speirs