Why Unions Matter

Bruce Campbell and Armine Yalnizyan

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.

This is a longer version of an article written for Media Planet

8 comments

  1. Thank-you for getting this out – it’s so important now as union membership has really been declining over the past 2 or more decades. Union membership is vital to strengthen the role of working people into the real economic system of any country. It is membership into workplace democracy. Real, honest control over your working relationship with an employer. (and they will do anything – just anything – to prevent unionization – they DO NOT want to share control with anyone)

  2. RE: “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.”

    Who watered down the rules and eroded worker rights? I think we need to hold union leadership to account for their failures to safeguard workers. The early gains made by unions were hard fought. But when the 1970s crisis hit and the bourgeoisie pushed through their neoliberal agenda, where were the fighting unions? The ideology of social democracy and peaceful coexistence has has placated the leadership to the point of pushover.

    Imperialist nations like ours live off the labor of foreign exploits, and the left has let these people go. Unions have been co-opted into willing participants in the expansion of global markets and the imperialist wealth transfers this implies. We need to get past seeing unions as an end-game form of organization, and to place them back into their historical trajectory of socialist revolution.

  3. “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.”
    Which is one reason why they’re under such attack from the ruling classes. Corey Robin’s new book “The Reactionary Mind” goes into how the counter-revolutionary right promotes a hierarchical society everyone can buy into as long as they’re not at the bottom. A long as somebody else is underneath them. One historical analogy he cites is the original “southern strategy,” pre-Civil War, which ideally would have seen every white owning at least one slave.

  4. I find these arguments laughable. I resigned from a unionized position where I was required to work 80 hours in 7 consecutive nights every second week. That was (barely) doable, but I couldn’t tolerate a schedule change to a permanent night rotation of mostly two or three consecutive 12 hour night shifts which NEVER allowed me four consecutive nights sleep. Standard employment provisions would not have permitted such a schedule, but thanks to my union, I was unable to negotiate an alternative I felt would protect my health and safety and allow me a reasonable quality of life. I didn’t qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, since I resigned voluntarily. I am now living on retirement savings fourteen years before I intended to retire. The 8 hour workday with weekends and health and safety improvements that generations of workers fought for were negotiated away to the point where the conditions I worked under was far surpassed by provincially legislated employment standards. I WAS paid more than minimum wage, but it wasn’t worth it.

    Unions could make a positive difference if the will were there, but in my experience, that was not the case.

  5. Sharon,

    There seems to be something missing in your example regarding working 80 hours a week ( 7 days a week). Did you bring this up to your union? Did you file a grievance? Were there more than one person in the same situation as you? It’s hard to believe a union would have allowed this to occur. I hope you can expand on your situation.

  6. Two years late for the debate–lets get her going again! Unions have brought us many things, but are far from perfect. They are fine to represent competent reasonable workers, but as fewer and fewer basic necessities are taught in school–what are employers to do? I doubt plant closings have nothing whatsoever to do with few students taking science or trade skills in class.

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