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Book review: Unions Matter


Matthew Behrens, Editor (for the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights). Unions Matter: Advancing Democracy, Economic Equality and Social Justice. Toronto. Between the Lines. 2014.

This excellent book on why unions and a strong labour movement are essential building blocks of a sound economy and of a just and democratic society deserves to be widely circulated. It is accessible to individual labour activists who wish to deepen their understanding of the role of unions – both inside and outside the workplace – and should be widely adopted for use in post-secondary labour studies courses and union educational programs.

The book is a project of the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights, which has long argued that core labour rights such as the right to form independent unions free of interference by employers and government, the right to engage in free collective bargaining, and the right to strike are fundamental human rights.

This should not be a controversial position given that these core rights have been enshrined in international law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But labour rights are, to say the least, only recognized in a limited way under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The courts have only recently, and with notable reluctance, been prepared to strike down even the most egregious anti-union legislation.

The Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights has meticulously documented the erosion of long-standing labour rights by the federal and provincial governments, especially over the past two decades, and shown how the increasingly hostile legal environment has been a major factor behind the erosion of union influence in the workplace, the economy, and the wider society.

This book is the outcome of an important international conference in Toronto in March 2013 convened by the foundation and co-sponsored by the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada, and the Canadian Teachers' Federation (CTF). It shows just how and why unions matter. As NUPGE President James Clancy puts it in his foreword, “unions promote fairness in the workplace and the economy, they strengthen democracy and they participate in broader social movements for social justice.”

Part 1 of the book focuses on the link between the attack on unions and the well-documented increase in economic inequality in Canada and other countries. As union bargaining power has eroded, the share of profits in national income has risen, as has the share of all income going to the very richest 1%. While regressive changes to taxes and social programs have also made a difference, Dalhousie University economist Lars Osberg argues that rising economic inequality will not be reversed if the attack on labour rights and the influence of unions is not reversed.

In a particularly important contribution, Michael Lynk of the University of Western Ontario shows how regressive changes to labour law are deeply implicated in rising economic inequality. This points to the necessity not just of restoring card check certification, first contract arbitration, free collective bargaining, and the right to strike, but also thinking in a progressive way about how labour legislation might better promote unionization among hard-to-organize workers such as those in insecure jobs in private services, especially those working for small employers.

Part 2 of the book provides a closer focus on the links between unions, democracy, and human rights. Nathalie Des Rosiers, Dean of Law at the University of Ottawa, makes a strong argument for much stronger constitutional protection of the right to freedom of association in Canada, and underlines the importance of unions in promoting democracy and access to basic human rights in the workplace. As James Clancy notes in his introduction, many workplace protections are just “paper promises” if there is no union to speak for and represent workers.

The book also reminds us that unions have been major actors in the struggle for human rights for all Canadians. In an important chapter, Paul Champ reminds us of the historical role of Canadian unions in fighting discrimination based upon race, gender, disability, and sexual orientation through collective bargaining, test legal cases, and support for broader based social movements. Naveen Mehta documents UFCW Canada's struggle to advance the rights of migrant farm workers, showing that the tradition of unions fighting for human rights is very much still a reality today.

Part 3 of the book focuses on the constitutional protection of labour rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It shows that some progress has been made as a result of political action by labour and social movements as well as shifting interpretations of Charter rights by the courts.

Fay Faraday and Eric Tucker of York University underline the importance of “democratic constitutionalism,” stressing that constitutional law is not written by judges in a vacuum but reflects changes in the underlying values of the public. Mobilizing for rights can thus have an impact.

This has been the case for labour rights. The Supreme Court has shifted from the position taken in 1987 that labour rights in Canada are not protected by the freedom of association provision of the Charter, to citing the importance of the international human rights legal context and ruling against unilateral government action to rip up collective agreements covering B.C. health care workers.

At the time of the conference, some labour lawyers were hopeful that the influence of social movements and shifting judicial interpretation may yet lead to the effective entrenchment of core labour rights in the Canadian constitution. Others were more cautious, and none would discount the importance of political action to the outcome.

Unions Matter sets out the strong case that labour rights promote the cause of democracy, equality, and social justice. It provides the labour movement and human rights activists with the tools they need to defend and expand labour rights, and deserves to be widely read and used.

Photo: seattlemunicipalarchives. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.