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Unions: More than we bargain for!


“Union Communities, Healthy Communities” sets out the direct relationship between healthy rates of unionization and lower rates of income inequality. This is a critical factor to discuss in light of the current developing attack on unions in Canada. At a time when many provinces have been starting to address issues of poverty reduction, children's benefits and welfare reform; what little progress we are making will be quickly undone if "right to work" measures gain ground. Unions are not only a key force in mitigating income inequality but also in fighting against the growing trend to precarious employment -- contract, part time, no benefits etc. – that is multiplying the numbers of Canadians who rank among the working poor.

Unions have been major players in campaigns to raise the minimum wage and to improve employment standards and health and safety protections, all to the benefit of both the unionized and non-unionized workforce.

Beyond these critical economic arguments though, there is another major plank to the value proposition for supporting the existence of a strong union presence. 

Unions and their memberships also play an important role in the building of strong communities. A great example of this is the partnership role labour plays within United Ways. I had the opportunity to watch labour and business working together to benefit local social services helping individuals and families. Enthusiastic labour/management workplace fundraising campaigns raise millions of dollars every year that directly contribute to building stronger communities for all of us. It is not only United Ways that benefit: many unions have programs of support for various specific charities, some even bargaining matching employer contributions to charitable funds.

Many local Labour Councils and United Ways have a partnership in delivering Local Union Councillor training programs. Union Councillors become important workplace resources to help fellow workers navigate local health and social services to get the help they and their families need.

Unions have also taken direct action to help address major social challenges. In Toronto, where high unemployment among racialized youth leaves many kids without a sense of hope or opportunity, the building trades' unions have brought employers to the table to create pre-apprenticeship bridging programs and real pathways to good employment opportunities for these young people. In major infrastructure programs such as the massive expansion of transit in the GTA, unions are helping build community coalitions to work with transit authorities to ensure high poverty neighbourhoods realize direct benefits from these big construction projects.

On the advocacy front, unions have been at the forefront of the push for legislative initiatives such as providing for equal pay for work of equal value, strong human rights protections, anti-discrimination provisions, affordable housing, worker training and labour adjustment.

Union campaigns have helped educate and motivate the general public in numerous solidarity actions such as the boycott of South African wine during the struggle to end apartheid or the grape boycott in support of safer working conditions for California farmworkers. Closer to home, most recently, trade unionists were early supporters of Idle No More and have long been a voice of support for First Nations' fight to improve the plight of their people.

All of this and so much more is often reduced to a two word description of labour in Canada: social unionism. There is a lot packed into that description and therefore a lot that we stand to lose if the purposeful campaign to weaken unions succeeds. And so those who seek to divide us by selective presentations of comparative wage data (thereby suggesting that higher wages for low wage workers is a bad thing) and manipulative messages about "big unions", are also waging a stealth war on the organized voice of labour. A voice that is brought to bear on so much more than just what is bargained for in collective agreements.

The Hon. Frances Lankin P.C., C.M. is a former Ontario MPP and Cabinet Minister. From 2001 to 2011, Frances held the positon of CEO of United Way Toronto. Most recently she was Co-Commissioner of the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario which published its report "Brighter Prospects" in October 2012. In June 2012, Frances was named a Member of the Order of Canada.

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

Photo: doviende. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.