A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

Thirty years ago, Sorel boots and Massey Ferguson tractors were union made in Canada. No longer. Manufacturing jobs have disappeared, to be replaced by ones in finance, the service sector or small businesses—parts of the economy less likely to employ union workers.

As union participation in Canada has gone down, income and wealth inequality has gone up. Yet correlation is not causation. Unionization is a double-edged sword. It can improve the ordinary working person’s wages and working conditions, but it can also create disparities between better paid union workers and less well paid non-union workers. In theory, unions’ impact on economic equality is ambiguous.

Some might argue that declining union coverage—along with rising economic inequality—is an unavoidable consequence of globalization, the shift to an information economy and profound technological change. For the most part, the essays in Unions Matter: Advancing Democracy, Economic Equality and Social Justice, edited by Matthew Behrens, reject this view. In the words of one contributor, the decline in unionization “is neither inevitable or irreversible.”

The strongest evidence against inevitability comes from the parts of Unions Matter examining labour law. Unions can only flourish in the absence of barriers to union formation; they can only achieve significant gains for their members if they have leverage—like the right to strike—to use in contract negotiations. If one compares across provinces, across countries and, over time, it appears that supportive labour laws have stemmed the tide of union decline. Less supportive laws, like those requiring mandatory certification votes before a union is recognized, have accelerated it.

The essayists’ discussion of labour law is particularly timely given the increasing political and policy interest in Canada’s labour law. For example, right-to-work laws, which allow employees to opt out of paying union dues, while enjoying the benefits of being in a unionized workplace, including representation in grievance procedures, have been advocated by political parties in several provinces and think tanks such as the Fraser Institute. The benefits, especially pension entitlements, enjoyed by unionized public sector workers are also being called into question.

Unions Matter generally sees advocacy of less union-friendly labour laws as a product of neo-liberalism and business lobbyists. Yet corporations that threaten “unionized workers with plant closures” are not making empty threats, as the workers at Caterpillar’s London plant and Walmart’s Jonquière store learned the hard way. Globalization means that capital is more mobile than labour; private sector employers can walk away if they do not get the contract they want. Even if the employer is—as Walmart was—found in violation of labour laws, settlement of such cases takes years, and meanwhile workers are out of a job. Fundamental economic and political realities are lessening the ability of unions to negotiate gains for their workers.

One of the contributions of Unions Matter is to shift the terms of the policy debate, to frame unions more as a democratic force advancing “human rights and equality on behalf of all Canadians” and less as interest groups negotiating benefits for their members. As Lars Osberg puts it, “the long-term impact of unions on Canadian trends in economic inequality is primarily through their political action (or inaction)—and only secondarily through their direct impact on wages.” Unions Matter describes the past and present of the labour movement’s political, social and legal activism, from the role the United Auto Workers union played in fighting racial discrimination in the late 1940s and early ’50s to the work the United Farm and Commercial Workers union does today supporting and promoting the rights of migrant workers.

At times the overwhelmingly upbeat tone of Unions Matter is a bit hard to take. A discussion of unions as social movements, for example, describes how unions reconfigure workplaces into “places where decisions must be rational.” Really? Only rarely does Unions Matter look inward, and treat unions as institutions made up of people with interests of their own.

After all, unions are a manifestation of freedom of association. As such, they reflect the strengths and weaknesses of classic liberalism: people use freedoms in both desirable and undesirable ways. Past failings of the union movement, for example, its sometimes slow acceptance of women’s equality rights, are acknowledged. But there is little or no discussion in Unions Matter of current intergenerational tensions in the union movement: the movement toward two-tier workplaces, like Air Canada’s Rouge Airlines, which aims to hire new, mostly younger workers at a lower pay scale and with fewer benefits than are enjoyed by older, established workers. Yes, overall inequality has not risen as much in Canada as in the United States, but the gap between older and younger workers has widened more  in Canada than in the United States.

It is a pity that Unions Matter does not include perspectives from across the political spectrum, as this limits the appeal of what is otherwise a valuable collection of essays. Much of the available literature on the impacts of unions on inequality is written from an American or other international perspective. But Canada is not the United States: we have a higher unionization rate, especially in the public sector, and less inequality. We have our own unique labour laws and constitution. Unions Matter gives a comprehensive and readable synopsis of the evolution of income inequality and unionization in Canada over the past 30 years. More technical chapters, such as Armine Yalnizyan’s contribution, avoid jargon and explain terms simply and clearly; they eschew numbers in favour of clear, easy-to-interpret graphs. Unions Matter’s discussion of labour law and constitutional protection of labour rights was, for me, particularly valuable, partly because I am less familiar with this literature.

Unions Matter is an answer to a question never asked: how can Canada’s labour movement maintain its relevance now that its traditional base has shrunk, and the typical trade unionist is a woman working in the public sector? The response: by fighting in the courts for protection of labour rights; by campaigning against right to work and similar legislation; by advocating for minimum wages and income support programs; by looking for ways, such as tax reform, to contain the concentration of income and wealth in the hands of the one percent; by advocating for new immigrants and other marginalized workers. In short, to push back “against inequality and towards a more just and hopeful future.”