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Progressives and the future of the labour movement

Labour day is an appropriate time to reflect on the accomplishments of the labour movement -- and the challenges that lie ahead.

There is increased recognition that strong unions were a key pillar of the period of shared prosperity, which lasted for some 30 years from the 1950s through the 1970s. Unions negotiated wage and benefit increases in line with growing productivity, and these gains gradually spread to non-union workplaces.

Unions made Canada a much more equal society by raising the wages of formerly low-paid workers; by narrowing pay differences, including between women and men; and by successfully advocating for the expansion of social programs and public services.

Even today, unionized workers enjoy a significant wage and benefit advantage over comparable non-union workers, and differences in pay between women and men and racialized and non-racialized workers are much narrower in unionized workplaces.

However, as the proportion of private sector unionized workers has fallen from a peak of 40% in the early 1980s to under 20% today, so has income and wealth inequality increased in lockstep, as shown in the Broadbent Institute study, “Union Communities, Healthy Communities.

Key reasons for private sector union decline include the shift of jobs away from highly unionized sectors like manufacturing to the thinly unionized private services sector, and increased competitive pressures from lower wage non-union employers at home and abroad.

It has been increasingly difficult for unions to set a decent standard that applies to all employers in a specific sector. For example, it is difficult to maintain wages and conditions at unionized Loblaws when non-union Wal-Mart goes into the grocery business and pays little more than minimum wage.

That said, there are some key examples of success. In many large cities, including Toronto, unions have been able to organize many downtown hotel workers and set a higher wage standard across the sector. In Quebec, union contracts cover most security guards, and in many provinces a high proportion of home and elder care workers even outside the direct public sector are unionized.

The labour movement has recognized that its key challenge is to organize non-union workers, and new resources have been put into that challenge. This summer's Canadian Labour Congress convention frankly acknowledged that the only way to secure the future of the movement is to bring in new members, especially low-wage private services workers, and to reach out to an increasingly diverse workforce.

The labour movement has worked with community groups and other social activists to push successfully for higher minimum wages and tougher employment standards, and has spearheaded the campaign to expand the Canada Pension Plan.

While the right-wing like to demonize a supposed union elite, the fact of the matter is that few union members are in the top 10%, let alone the top 1%, and unions continue to champion goals that benefit all workers, especially those most in need.

But it will be tough for unions to go one step further and to win new members if our labour laws are not reformed. At a minimum, unions should be certified if they persuade a majority of workers to sign up as members, and a first contract should be applied by the labour relations board if employers refuse to bargain in good faith.

But even broader reforms to labour laws are needed to deal with changes in the world of work. Legislation should facilitate multi-employer bargaining across sectors and communities as opposed to workplace by workplace negotiations. Such a model generally applies in just a few sectors, like construction, the arts and public services, and should be extended to sectors like retail trade.

When a multi-employer bargaining system exists, the basic terms of the contract cover all unionized employers, and non-union employees who choose to join the union are covered by the current agreement if there is majority support in the workplace.

The labour movement has, of course, long supported reforms to labour law to allow for a genuinely free choice by workers on whether they wish to join a union or not.

But it is important for the wider progressive community to take up the cause and to press governments for action on this critically important front in the wider struggle for equality and social justice.

Andrew Jackson is senior policy advisor to the Broadbent Institute.

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