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Lana Payne: Unions push for advancements for all

In conjunction with the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour’s convention taking place this week at the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland, delegates marched up Military Road to the steps of the Colonial Building over the lunch hour on Tuesday to rally in support of a $15-per-hour minimum wage.
Labour delegates on the steps of the Colonial Building on Military Road in St. John’s in support of a high minimum wage. — Telegram file photo

This Labour Day, consider the important role unions play in our society.

Without unions and robust collective bargaining, sharing economic progress is limited or virtually impossible.


It was an employer, albeit a progressive one, who pointed this out during a conversation about the continued attack on labour laws and unions by right-wing political parties and governments.

The evidence is clear he said, no country has achieved shared progress without strong unions.

Indeed, the evidence is quite overwhelming, and yet in Canada, and more so in the United States and Australia and other advanced economies, the legislative framework to support the work of unions and the rights of workers has been battered. Some repairs have taken place at the national or federal level in Canada, but provincially things are still a bit of a mess.
The attack on unions has overwhelmingly coincided with the rise in inequality.

This is not merely unions saying this, but rather independent academic researchers and economists and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which is hardly a bastion of progressive economic thought. And yet the IMF says the “evidence strongly indicates” that de-unionization is associated with a bigger and bigger share of the wealth going to the top and that weakening unions contributes to inequality.

A recent comprehensive study by Princeton University academics found that when unions are strong and growing, living standards and wages go up and inequality is lessened.

And yet despite the evidence, overwhelming evidence, about the value of unions, the path to unionization is still a tough one in Canada. Many of the legislative attacks on unions from the late 1980s and 1990s remain on the books, with few changes to labour laws anywhere in the country, unless they weakened worker power.

This is beginning to change a little under more progressive provincial governments who, armed with a mountain of evidence and a motivated and organized advocacy, made some improvements to labour and workplace laws, including Alberta under Rachel Notley and Ontario under Kathleen Wynne.

Changes in how work is structured, the rise of the gig economy, the attack on pensions, and the growth of precarious work — especially among young workers — all point to the need for more robust labour and employment laws so the rights of workers are protected.

Decent work should not be something we have to continuously fight for in advanced economies and democracies. It should be a given. And yet nothing is ever given to workers.

Advances are instead taken through collective bargaining, through powerful advocacy and struggle, and because unions remain, despite some incredible odds, a powerful force for equality.

Consider what unions have done at a collective bargaining table and how those achievements have changed work and society. Equal pay and pay equity. Same-sex benefits. Extended parental leave. Paid leave for victims of domestic violence. Anti-harassment provisions. Health and safety protections. Pensions. All first negotiated at a collective bargaining table and now more broadly applied because unions and progressive voices fought for laws so these advances were available to all workers.

Now consider where we would be without organized labour pushing for better standards of work, demanding decent work for all.

It’s not merely what unions do at the collective bargaining table, it is also the work some do to advocate for a more equal world, their social and political agendas. It is that some unions use their powerful and organized voices to force wealth to be shared, including through robust social programs.

I would be the first to say unions are not perfect. Mobilizing and organizing for change is an everyday endeavour. There is no room for complacency — that’s something all unions need to weave into their DNA.

As an elected leader in Canada’s largest private sector social union, I see the good unions do and can do. I see the power of the collective, the power of people when they are inspired to demand equality.

I see them advocating for things like enhanced public pensions, a national and universal prescription drug program, so no Canadians have to do without the medicine they need. I see them in communities across the country, volunteering. I see them taking on some pretty tough employers with shoddy safety records. I see them as a counterbalance to concentrated global corporate wealth and power. I see them as organizations of people, workers, who want a fair shake in life: a job with decent pay and benefits and respect at work. Is that really too much to ask for?

And when governments make the job of unions tougher though bad and antiquated legislation, like we have in many provinces across Canada — including Newfoundland and Labrador — they are really siding with the powerful.

This Labour Day, remind governments that workers’ rights are not a given, they must be protected through strong legislation that is vigorously enforced.

This Labour Day, consider the work of unions to the fabric of our country. And consider what Canada would look like without them.

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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