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Anti-Union Measures: Solution in Search of a Problem

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Careful observers of Canadian politics will be forgiven a certain "déjà vu" feeling at the most recent target of Conservative i.e. trade unions.

Fresh from their bilious campaign against the charitable sector (recall the intemperate claims that environmental groups are "radicals", "terrorists" and "eco-vandals" emanating from federal Cabinet Ministers and Senators), the muzzling of federal government scientists, and sundry closings of important institutions with the continuing temerity to speak their mind, trade unions are clearly next in the Tory cross-hairs.

In Toronto, Leader of the Opposition Tim Hudak has proposed legislation to make payment of union dues voluntary -- even though non-dues paying free-riders would still receive the wages and benefits negotiated by their union, and would still have a legal right to union representation if they were fired or disciplined.

In Ottawa, Conservatives in the House of Commons have passed legislation that would require unions to publicly disclose in minute detail virtually all aspects of their spending, no matter how irrelevant. They propose no such requirements for business and professional associations that similarly represent their members.

And in Regina, the Wall government's Bill 85 interferes with the rights of employees to belong to the union of their choosing.

In every case, these anti-union measures are a solution in search of a problem. They are a transparent attempt to damage the financial viability of trade unions and they lay bare the hypocrisy of Conservative parties and governments who, while professing a commitment to streamline useless red tape for Canadian businesses, are ideologically driven to create a choking amount of red tape for trade unions.

Why should Canadians care, particularly the majority of us who don't below to trade unions? The reason is simple. As the Broadbent Institute outlines in a report released today, unions have made and continue to make Canada a much more equal and democratic society than would otherwise be the case. Because of this, the sort of radical US-style anti-union legislation being proposed by conservatives is a threat not just to unionized workers, but to all Canadians.

International human rights laws ratified by Canada and Supreme Court decisions have stressed that unions are democratic institutions that should be accountable to their members, and have a legitimate role to play in our society above and beyond workplace activities such as collective bargaining. Unions have a record to be proud of in terms of fighting for government policies that benefit all people, union members and non-members alike. Public pensions, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, and affordable and accessible post secondary education were all promoted by the labour movement working with other movements for social reform.

To take one recent example, the labour movement has recently worked with seniors and anti-poverty organizations to greatly increase benefits provided by the Canada Pension Plan so that all workers, not just union workers, can have a decent pension in retirement.

Unions have also promoted laws and regulations that protect the rights of all workers in the workplace: health and safety laws, minimum wages and other minimum employment standards that help protect low paid workers in insecure jobs, and pay and employment equity laws that protect women and racial minorities from discrimination.

Numerous studies by experts with no ideological axe to grind show that, when unions are strong, the gains that they make for their members in terms of decent wages and benefits spill over into non-union workplaces. In the face of Canadian conservatives trying to portray unions as some kind of impediment to economic growth and productivity, actually examining this empirical evidence is instructive.

Economists agree that the rapidly rising share of all income going to the top 1% in the US and Canada since the early 1980s is explained in significant part by declining unionization. US-style de-unionization would clearly make Canada a much more unequal society than is already the case.

And calculations by respected international organizations such as the OECD and the World Bank also show that countries with strong labour movements are more equal and inclusive, and often have very successful economies. Unions recognize that high productivity is the key to decent wages and good jobs, and many successful companies recognize that good labour relations benefit both parties to the agreement.

Since 1980, the total Canadian economic pie (real GDP per person) has grown by 50 per cent, but the real wage of an average worker has increased by just 10 per cent, and union workers have done no better than non-union workers. Over the entire period from 2000 to 2011, the wages of unionized workers rose by just 5 per cent on top of inflation.

Canada's real economic and social problem is stagnant living standards for the broad middle class as a whole, a steady increase in very low paid and insecure jobs, and rapidly growing inequality of income and wealth as the gains from economic growth go to top income earners.

Seen from this perspective, a strong labour movement is not the problem, but rather an important part of the solution. Unions helped create the Canadian middle class, and we need strong unions to help return us to broadly-shared prosperity.

Rick Smith is Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute. Read the Institute's new report on unions and shared prosperity, "Union Communities, Healthy Communities" at www.broadbentinstitute.ca/unions.