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Stephen Harper's Monty Python moment

What have the unions ever done for us?

In the past few months, I have heard a number of right-wing figures publicly question the value of unions in our society, and I can’t help but think of a scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

John Cleese, playing a revolutionary in Imperial Rome, asks “What have the Romans ever done for us?” His followers respond that the Romans have given them sanitation, the aqueduct, the roads, medicine, and public education. Cleese’s character, though, remains convinced: the Romans have to go.

I wonder whether these attacks on labour are a page taken from the Monty Python rhetorical playbook. Is Stephen Harper really just playing a grandiose practical joke on the entire country? 

Maybe Harper and his right-wing cronies need a reminder.

The fact is that unions have played a major role in ensuring that everyone in society gets a fairer shake. Unions can lay claim to have created the Canadian and American middle class. Unions won decent wages and benefits and adequate working conditions for the average worker. Unions campaigned for social programs like pensions and employment insurance and public health care. Everyone benefits from the past victories of our unions.

Today, the labour movement is under attack as never before.

In the United States, fewer than one in eight workers now belong to a union. Over the past twenty years, wages in what used to be middle-class jobs have stagnated and income gains have gone almost entirely to the top 1%.

Here in Canada it isn’t very different. While one in three workers are still unionized, wage settlements in both the private and public sector have barely matched inflation over the past decade, and we have lost over 300,000 good unionized manufacturing jobs since 2002. This year’s controversial closure of Electro-Motive, and the loss of 450 such jobs to a plant in the Southern United States, is just the tip of the iceberg.

But that isn’t even the worst part.

Somehow, rolling back labour rights has come to be seen as the solution to high unemployment and a painfully slow economic recovery. Never mind the fact that the economic crisis was caused by an enormously irresponsible financial elite.

In the United States, so-called “right to work” laws were passed in 2012 in the rust belt states of Indiana and Michigan. Making union dues optional for free riders who benefit from a union contract but refuse to join is intended to weaken unions -- and it works. Unions represent less than 8% of workers in so-called “right to work” states.

Here in Canada, right-wing conservatives have decided to import these American-style anti-labour laws. The Ontario Liberal government passed Bill 115, which imposes new contracts on teachers even though their unions are prepared to negotiate in good faith, and even though past co-operation with teachers has enormously improved Ontario’s public education system. PC Leader Tim Hudak wants to go even further: he has said that if he were Premier, he would introduce American-style anti-worker legislation and rip up public sector contracts.

The Conservative majority in Ottawa is ramming through Bill C-377, a similar attack on working Canadians which will force unions to disclose all their revenue and spending in massive (and costly) detail. The real goal is to stop unions from engaging in any and all political and lobbying activity, even though no such restrictions will be imposed on employers, business groups, and professional associations.

The right tries to paint unionized workers as privileged for trying to maintain decent jobs for their members. Shockingly, too many employer groups tell low-paid, non-union workers in insecure jobs that unions are the problem, even though the real problem is soaring income for the richest among us and our governments’ failure to create good, middle-class jobs.

Everyone should have the right to join a union and have their terms and conditions of employment determined though free collective bargaining. And unions should, as democratic institutions, continue to be able to represent their members in public life.

The reality is that unionized workers are fighting for the rights of all working Canadians. And when the workplace is stronger, social inequality is reduced, and society prospers.

So apart from fair wages, good working conditions, pensions, EI, and public healthcare, I ask: what have the unions ever done for us?