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The union advantage: confronting the austerity and anti-union agendas

We are at a socio-economic and ecological crossroads with governments at every level pushing an austerity agenda. Yet, in this moment of financial, economic, social, and environmental crisis, with the socio-economic and ecological shocks being felt in communities, the last and most enduring institution that represents the interest of workers – the labour union – is under threat from powerful vested interests.

This is happening through the structural process of neo-liberalization of the economy and also through raw power politics. Neo-liberalism has had as its objective the intention to reverse the progressive era as defined by the welfare state, public services to respond to social needs, and greater social equity for those historically marginalized by the economy and society. This ideology seeks to entrench the growing disparity between rich and poor and lock in the advantage that economic wealth gives the elite in terms of political power.

The nature and size of the Canadian economy has been dramatically transformed by neo-liberal globalization over the past four decades, increasing the number of workers that are in direct competition, internationally and locally. Some of that competition has been generated by massive immigration from countries in the Global South as societies around the world have had their economies disrupted by political instability and predatory forces of economic globalization, forcing many workers to relocate to new places such as Ontario.  On the other hand, employers have used the threat of relocation of jobs and factories to lower wages and working conditions in these host communities.  

While there was a time when workers were considered an asset to invest in, today workers are simply considered a cost to be minimized. But just when vulnerable communities need it most, the demands for labour flexibility have undermined the power of labour to bargain effectively. All across Canada, workers have had to settle for jobs with poor working conditions, low or no benefits, and low wages, out of fear of unemployment. The precarious conditions of under employment, contract work, part time and temporary work arrangements, low pay and poor working conditions have become increasingly normalized among many immigrant, racialized, women, youth and other historically vulnerable workers, at the expense of quality of life in our communities.

What drives these conditions is a business model that creates a ‘race to the bottom’ in competition among communities and a logic of ‘least cost production and low wages’ that is also responsible for the well-known growing concentration of income and wealth among the top 1%.

The essential mechanism for the wealth concentration is the disproportionate distribution of the gains of productivity and wealth creation. So we must look to the labour market for an institutional solution. Traditionally, the key labour market mechanism for redistributing income and power has been unionization. It still provides the most potential to effectively reverse these trends. Unionization, together with government action through employment standards enforcement, employment equity, supplemented by government transfers, access to education, technical training, child care (early learning environments) and social inclusion initiatives are essential to solving these challenges.

The documented over-representation of racialized groups in certain sectors, industries and occupations would suggest that unionization of these sectors would improve wage levels. Similarly, increased access for racialized group members to already-unionized sectors, industries and occupations would also improve their employment income and working conditions. Unionization could also benefit racialized workers in non-standard work environments such as garment-making, harvesting, kitchen and food service, and retailing.  

Numerous studies now show the impact of the union advantage for racialized workers in precarious work environments.  Andrew Jackson’s work is one of the most complete in that regard. But so is work by Jeff Reitz and Anil Verma, and my own analysis of income disparities among unionized and non-unionized racialized workers in Canada in the 1990s. The wage gap between unionized and non-unionized racialized workers is substantial as are the working conditions and experience of precarious work, suggesting that collective bargaining among racialized workers could improve their labour market experience and mitigate some of the impacts of racialization while raising prospects for new forms of class consciousness. In 2001, the proportion of racialized workers among paid workers was 9.3% while union coverage among racialized workers stood at 21.3%. representing about 6.9% of all unionized workers.  This level was significantly lower than the over rate of union density at 32.2% in the Canadian economy.  

Extending the union advantage to racialized and other vulnerable workers means that unions can bargain pay and employment equity provisions, advocate to improve employment standards legislation, push for a sensible minimum (or living) wage and help improve workplace conditions.  They can commit themselves to organizing sectors of the economy in which racialized and other vulnerable workers are disproportionately represented and precariously employed. For Canada’s Aboriginal and racialized group members to make significant progress in the labour market, they need the union advantage – the power of collective bargaining.

But not only have many employers and their allies in the ideological right wing launched a political attack on unions by seeking to introduce laws which would undermine the dues base of unions, they have also targeted sectors with unionized and relatively secure jobs, rendering them vulnerable through contracting out and privatization. Structurally, this represents as much of an attack on unions as the new thrust to import so-called right to work legislation into Canada from the United States of America.

These vulnerable workers are as likely to be public sector workers whose jobs have been privatized and contracted out, as private sector workers – many working at the low end of the compensation pyramid. They are workers who perform cleaning and service jobs. They are caretakers and instructors. They are personal support workers. They are usually women, many immigrant and racialized workers who support their families, communities and subsidize provincial budgets because they work for less, carry heavy workloads, low pay, meager benefits and low pay. They come from all types of communities and families, gay and straight, white and communities of colour, Canadian and immigrant, Indigenous and settler, young and not so young.

They are workers like 33 year old Felicia Calvaho, who now has to work for a contractor for half what she was previously paid as a cleaner.  She can no longer afford a sick day off and has to contend with a debilitating health condition that she cannot stop to deal with; Alicia Brown, who as a personal support worker often has to service three clients a day but has to use public transit to get to their homes across town, is diabetic and struggles to afford her medications; Manuel Rodrigues whose work as an education assistant has been budgeted out of existence by the school board but must still find a way to provide for his family. They are Jaspreet Minhas, Sana Hussein, Janet Litvak, Jenni O’Neil and Mindy Lee, whose child care jobs have been declared surplus and now have to scramble into an unforgiving job market that will not pay them a living wage for their families. Who is looking out for these workers?

Here is a truth you won’t hear from the mainstream media: contracting out, privatization, austerity and the intensification of work impose heavy costs on families and communities. At a time when racialized poverty is rising, social assistance rates are grossly inadequate to meet the challenge of livelihood and dignity, defined pension plans are being converted into privatized RRSPs, and when good paying jobs are being replaced by low paid and insecure jobs, it is clear that unions are the most essential countervailing force. As the Broadbent Institute’s latest paper makes clear, organized labour is the last and the best chance that working people have to stand up against oppression and exploitation.

Grace-Edward Galabuzi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies, at Ryerson University.

This article is a response to the Broadbent Institute's report on the labour movement and social prosperity, "Union Communities, Healthy Communities."

Photo: Nicolai Grut. Used under a Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0 licence.