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Catherine Swift. (Tory Zimmerman/The Globe and Mail)
Catherine Swift. (Tory Zimmerman/The Globe and Mail)

Catherine Swift

Why Canada’s taxpayers must stop supporting ‘privileged’ unions Add to ...

There has been much discussion of late around such topics as “right to work” and the role of unions in our economy and our society. Some have even claimed that the era of “union bashing” in Canada has run out of steam. In reality though, it is only the beginning of a period of close scrutiny of unions as the general public has lost patience with the privileged position unions enjoy and their constant meddling in issues that have nothing to do with the rights of workers. A century ago, unions brought some needed balance to the workplace. However, present-day unions serve as just another special interest group seeking more and more for themselves at the expense of everyone else. This is especially true in Canada, where unions enjoy a uniquely privileged position.

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Most Canadians are not aware that all other developed countries have moved to reduce union entitlements. Although the U.S. is always used as an example, unions in Europe and other developed countries have nowhere near the privileges enjoyed by their Canadian counterparts. For example, only in Canada can unions force dues to be paid by law in the workplace, and spend that money however they like. All other countries either permit employees to freely choose whether they want to pay dues, or at a minimum require unions to prove that the forced portion of the dues is spent only for collective bargaining purposes.

Canadian unions have spent vast amounts of their forced dues on such inspiring causes as the “Occupy” movement’s various protests and occupations, flotillas to Gaza, partisan interference in elections and other things most union members do not support.

Union leaders should also be concerned that their memberships are increasingly confined to the public sector. Almost 60 per cent of union members work for government, whereas 20 per cent of Canadians do, meaning unions increasingly only represent the public sector. As government workers are paid ever higher wages with large (and largely bankrupt) pensions and early retirements, the private sector taxpayers footing the bill find themselves tapped out.

This is not sustainable. Canada has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rates of government worker unionization in the world. We have seen the endgame of having an ever-richer public sector draining the wealth producers in the private sector in countries like Greece and in cities like Detroit, and it isn't pretty.

In the private sector, unions are effectively committing suicide as their uncompetitively high wages, benefits pensions and other entitlements are hobbling their employers’ ability to compete in the global marketplace. In Canada’s private sector, unions only represent about 17 per cent of workers; roughly half of what they represented two decades ago. Ontario has witnessed a number of companies recently vacate the province for friendlier climates, and the one thing all those companies had in common was that they were unionized. How long will it be before people want to have an honest conversation about that?

The longer-term trends are equally unfavorable to unions. An aging population means there are fewer workers to support retirees, and fewer workers paying big taxes to support bloated governments. Governments will have to figure out how to do more with less, and as government is the last bastion of union success, this will hit unions hard. In the private sector, technology is displacing many of the traditional union-type jobs, leaving fewer employees for unions to try to organize.

The small- and medium-sized business sector has also grown significantly in recent decades, and unions have never been successful in penetrating this arena as there is no need for a middleman in a business where the owner works side-by-side with employees and is well aware of their needs. In fact, Canadian research has found the highest level of employee satisfaction in smaller firms that are not unionized, as those employees feel much more a part of the enterprise and more valued for their role than do employees in large businesses or government bureaucracies.

There is also serious skepticism in the general public about unions. In all recent public opinion polls asking Canadians to rank the professions they respect, small business and farmers come out on top, and unions are always dead last. Canadians are rightly suspicious about the claims made by unions, as increasingly the only union jobs remaining seem to be in government – where no one has to compete to stay in “business” and gains for workers are only achieved at the cost of taxpayers who on average earn much less and have many fewer entitlements.

It is time for Canada to join the rest of the world in requiring more accountability and transparency from our very entitled unions. And that is not union bashing. It is just sensible economic and social policy.

Catherine Swift is spokesperson for Working Canadians, a volunteer not-for-profit organization which promotes democratic workplace laws and supports worker rights to real choice regarding unions.

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