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Lana Payne: Our young people deserve more than precarious work

Today’s young workers and the next generation of workers are facing some serious challenges. We haven’t made it easy for them. Consider our legacy to them: rising inequality, a gig economy, climate change, automation, growing insecurity.

Lana Payne

Today’s young workers are the most educated generation of workers in history, and yet they face insecure and precarious employment and a world where profound decisions about the future of the planet must be made and acted upon.

With respect to the world of work, there is plenty that can be done to improve security and build diverse, inclusive workplaces, if there is a will to do so.

But many of our laws were developed in the last century, and even then they barely supported rights granted to workers through provincial, national and international law. We need new laws to match today’s changing workplaces and to help counter the power of global capital, including hedge funds that have redefined vulture capitalism. Ask any Sears employee.

Consider the basic right to a union and how this has been weakened over time. Canada’s Charter of Rights refers to it as freedom of association. The Supreme Court has ruled that freedom of association — or the right to a union — includes the right to strike and the right to fair and free collective bargaining.

And yet there are hundreds of cases where governments have enacted laws that violate or at least infringe on this right. Sometimes it is a case of governments doing little or nothing to prevent a bad employer from violating the rights of its employees, as is currently the case with a small group of Unifor members, locked out by their American employer in Gander.

Sometimes it is a government like the one in Nova Scotia, which has enacted seven pieces of legislation over a four-year period attacking collective bargaining.

Governments have also made it tougher to organize workers, thereby preventing them from bargaining collectively with their employer. The deck has been stacked against workers, and even more so against young workers. And still employers expect their undivided loyalty.

Yet in the fight against inequality, we need unions to organize new workers, to bargain improved working conditions, and to be a voice for stronger laws and regulations to deal with the expanding gig economy. We also need unions to be a powerful catalyst for social change, including in the fight to combat hate and racism.

This is nothing new. But this Labour Day, as we reflect on the role of unions and workers in building a better and fairer Canada, as well as being on the forefront of the fight to advance human rights, we need to also reflect on just how difficult it can be for unions to make the difference we need them to make. This needs to change.

Unions are not perfect. What institutions are? But they are a force for social and economic good. They are the only serious counterbalance to the power of global capital. Outside of the role government plays in redistributing wealth, unions are the only means to ensure wealth from our economy gets shared.

Shared prosperity does not happen without the power of unions to force it to happen.

For more than 30 years, there has been an attack on unions. Global capital has been effective in convincing the political class that unions needed curbing, curtailing.

The result has been growing inequality as collective bargaining is attacked and weakened.

Young workers, many of them going from contract job to contract job, gig to gig, have no concept of what collective bargaining can and should do for them. They can only dream of medical and dental programs. A pension plan? No one expects one anymore. Yet aircraft manufacturers can’t keep up with orders for private jets.

What we can do is change that legacy into something more hopeful.

Governments and global institutions need to seriously consider what the future of work holds for this and the next generation of workers. And unions need to use the power they have to focus on delivering fairness to this next generation of workers.

The legacy we leave does not have to be a bleak one. It can be, instead, a legacy of creative actions to improve the security of this new generation of working people. It can be a legacy of hope and determination. It can be a legacy where the gig economy is challenged in meaningful ways.

Because if we want a better tomorrow for the next generation, we have to organize for it. We organize for it with the young workers of today who are being sold a bill of goods about what the economy can and can’t deliver.

Insecurity is not inevitable. The gig economy is not inevitable. Good jobs are possible. But we have to be willing to fight for them in new, smart and creative ways. This Labour Day, let’s commit to improve the legacy we will leave the next generation of workers. We can do better.


Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.

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