Canadian Pacific's Peter Edwards: Unions Created The Middle Class

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Now here’s something you don’t see every day: A senior exec at a major Canadian company defending unions.

That’s what happened at a recent roundtable discussion on the future of organized labour put together by Canadian HR Reporter, when Canadian Pacific’s vice-president for human resources and labour relations, Peter Edwards, credited unions with the creation of the modern middle class.

"When you talk to anyone remotely connected to the world, they understand the role of unions providing what we have today,” he said.

“They're a key driver in the creation of the middle-class, for the reduction of work hours, paid vacation, all sorts of benefits that we all enjoy."

Edwards made his comments last month, but they didn’t get much attention until the Broadbent Institute’s PressProgress blog flagged it.

Edwards suggested unions are suffering from an identity crisis as the economy shifts away from manufacturing, their traditional stronghold.

“There is a certain image they’re predominantly blue collar, or they’re government workers. And gee, I’m neither of those, so where do I fit in? Where are the people that are like me? And what can you offer me in the future?”

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Others on the panel noted that unions in Canada are at a crucial crossroads. The “elephant in the room,” said labour lawyer Jamie Knight, is the rise of “right-to-work” states in the U.S., where union members are given the choice not to pay union dues, a move critics say has undermined unions and driven down wages.

Knight noted that Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party has adopted “right-to-work” as party policy, and given the minority government situation in the province, the PCs could soon be in a position to make this policy.

“It’s going to play out in the next Ontario election, and there’s a real possibility the next government of Ontario will be formed by a party that proposes to follow the recent example of Michigan, which is a primary competitor for Ontario jobs.”

But Ted Mallett, vice-president and chief economist of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said he doesn’t see the decline of unions as “a problem that necessarily needs solving.

“We’re not talking about a PR problem, we are talking about the general public having a fundamentally different view of the workplace than unions,” he said.

A recent Harris-Decima survey carried out for the Canadian Association of University Teachers found two-thirds of Canadians oppose right-to-work rules.

Watch the panel discussion here:

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