Unions have been the target of frequent vilification in recent years. CEOs are quick to blame union “inflexibility” for their corporate problems. Deficit-mired politicians are just as ready to fault union “greed” for almost any fiscal ailment. Governments routinely invoke punitive legislation to constrain collective bargaining and end work stoppages (even in the private sector). Union-bashing talk-show hosts and commentators gleefully join the pile-on.
Given all this finger-pointing, unions (and union leaders) won’t win many popularity contests these days. But does this mean unions’ days are numbered? I think not: Indeed, to the contrary, unions have never been more important or necessary.
Just consider the trends in Canada’s labour market. Real hourly wages have stagnated, and are no higher now than a generation ago. Similarly, real median family incomes have gone absolutely nowhere since 1980. This stagnation in average living standards is a damning indictment of Canada’s labour market, given the improvements in productivity and technology we see around us every day. We’re working harder and more efficiently than ever – but our paycheques don’t show it.
And lousy wages are just the tip of the iceberg. A growing proportion of workers can’t even attain the basic stability once automatically associated with having a job. Precarious work in all its forms (including part-time, contract, temporary and self-employment) now accounts for up to half of all employment in major Canadian cities.
The result is a growing gap between a lucky elite (the top percentiles who pocket most of the gains of economic growth) and the rest of us. The economic, fiscal and social consequences of this extreme inequality are increasingly documented and understood. But this inequality is not an accident: It is a predictable result of policies and practices, by government and business, aimed at restraining wages and structurally disempowering workers. To reverse this, we must reinforce the institutions that can achieve a more equal sharing of the wealth. And the best way to do that is through collective bargaining.
Millions of working people are angry. Young workers might be the angriest. They did what they were supposed to (followed the rules, stayed in school, got a degree) but have been relegated to lousy jobs that badly undervalue their true potential.
And no matter how often they are told that this exploitation and exclusion is “natural” or “inevitable,” workers will always chafe at mistreatment, and seek change. Society as a whole is better off when we provide institutional avenues for workers to air their grievances and press their demands.
That’s the value of an efficient and accountable collective bargaining system. It provides workers with a collective voice, and a meaningful seat at the table where distribution and working conditions are determined. Done right, it can enrich our productivity and prosperity, while ensuring that the resulting wealth is widely shared.
To be sure, Canada’s industrial relations system needs to evolve, and Canadian unions must innovate, in order to reflect changing labour market realities and pressures. But the fundamental reason for unions – the need for collective voice, and collective representation, for people who otherwise would not share in the economic progress of society – is still painfully obvious.
Jerry Dias is founding national president of Unifor, formed through the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions.