09/03/2012 02:33 EDT | Updated 11/02/2012 05:12 EDT

This Labour Day, Consider the Union Advantage

Flickr: JohnnyGotHisGun

On Labour Day we celebrate the many contributions of working people who helped to build our country and its economy. Despite negative comments about unions from some business groups, we do make a positive difference in the health of our communities and the lives of business owners. We call this the union advantage.

The Canadian Labour Congress released a research study in August showing that on average unionized workers in Canada earn $5.11 an hour more than do non-union workers. That extra money in the pockets of individual workers means the union advantage is worth a cumulative $793 million per week that is added to our economy, and it represents a gain for local communities and small businesses as well.

Our research study highlights 29 separate communities across the country to show the benefits that unionized workers provide. We have found that centres with more union members enjoy relatively higher incomes overall and support a richer mix of businesses and services -- dentists, chiropractors, therapists, health specialists, family lawyers. These services benefit everyone. In short, these communities are better places to work and live.

Belonging to a union is especially important for female workers. We have found that 53 per cent of non-union women earn less than $13.33 an hour, compared to just 6.4 per cent of women who belong to unions. So the next time someone says union workers make too much money, ask them if they would prefer their mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts to make less than $13.33 an hour for their labour.

Unionized workers are more likely than non-union workers to have access to workplace pension plans, drug and dental plans. This means that millions of children have proper dental and vision care. Their parents can more easily afford to enroll them in camps and sports programs and later send them off to college and university. But the union advantage doesn't belong just to union members. All workers share in what union members have fought hard to achieve -- better wages, good benefits and safer workplaces.

When unions stand up for fairness, they raise the bar for everyone. That is why, for example, the Canadian Labour Congress is working to convince governments to improve Canada Pension Plan benefits. We want to make sure that every retired Canadian -- whether or not they belonged to a union -- will receive a livable $24,000 a year from CPP. It can be done and it's only fair.

Decent wages and pensions mean prosperous communities because unionized workers spend most or all of their paycheques close to home. For this reason, we find it odd that some people and organizations who claim to speak for small business are supporting proposals that would make it more difficult for people to join unions.

The International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have confirmed that broadly-based collective bargaining is the best mechanism to build a healthy middle class. In short, when workers, through their unions, are able to bargain freely for decent wages, benefits and pensions, there are benefits for society as a whole. Unionized workers help to build a stronger middle class and a stronger economy for everyone.

For generations, Canadians and our governments have understood the value of unions and of free collective bargaining. Unfortunately, our current federal government and some provincial governments want to ignore both history and the facts and turn back the clock. All of this should trouble Canadians whether or not they are unionized workers. There is a direct relationship between attacks upon unions and the growing income gap in our society and the quality of life every Canadian deserves. Local businesses that benefit from the union advantage will also suffer if wages fall or remain stagnant.

On this Labour Day we hold our heads high as we salute the contributions of ordinary working Canadians. Behind every successful private business, entrepreneur or public service, there is a group of dedicated workers. This is a day to say thank you to the 95 per cent of Canadians who work for someone else, but who also strive for a fair and prosperous Canada.

Ken Georgetti is president of the 3.3 million member Canadian Labour Congress.