07/06/2012 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/05/2012 05:12 EDT

Hey Hudak: You've Got Unions All Wrong


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 the middle class and for society as a whole.

In the not-so-distant past, Canadian governments also endorsed the value and purpose of free collective bargaining. The current federal government, however, has made it a habit of intervening in the economy on behalf of employers and against the people who work for them.

This is evident in the government's plan to make it easier for employers to bring in migrant workers and pay them 15 per cent less than the prevailing wage, and in changes to employment insurance legislation that will force unemployed workers to travel farther afield and to take almost any job at only 70 per cent of their previous wages.

The government has loaded the dice against employees, and this is especially evident in their interventions in labour disputes. In May, they used back-to-work legislation on behalf of Canadian Pacific Rail in its dispute with engineers and other workers. Last year the government intervened in two Air Canada labour disputes, and prior to that one at Canada Post.

All of this should trouble Canadians whether or not they are unionized workers. The erosion of collective bargaining is linked directly to a growing income gap in our society. Corporate profits are at near or record highs while the wages of Canadians have stagnated for an entire generation. There is a direct relationship between attacks upon unions and a shrinking of the Canadian middle class.

Left to its own devices, free collective bargaining really does work for the common good. Unions have been able to ensure that workers share, at least to some extent, in the corporate profits that they helped create. Unions have been successful in reducing systemic wage gaps in workplaces. Being in a union means better wages for women, workers of colour, aboriginal people and people with disabilities.

The more equal wage structure in unionized workplaces sets wage and benefit standards that spill over into other workplaces. Employees tend to be paid better when they live in communities with unionized workers earning decent wages. Finally, countries with strong labour movements have a larger, more vibrant middle class and achieve greater societal fairness because unions advocate for government policies that benefit all working people, not just their own members.

Our government's heavy-handed interventions in the labour market weaken basic labour rights, and that hurts all middle class Canadians. This meddling tips the scales in one direction and means that companies do not have to take bargaining seriously. They can just sit back and wait for the government to ride to their rescue if talks reach an impasse.

If workers are left with no outlet to seek fair compensation and working conditions, they will find other means of collective expression. Their frustration could result in spontaneous work disruptions, with a profound effect on productivity.

The government is setting the stage for an explosion of wage demands in the future, when unemployment falls and labour markets tighten. After years of frustration and stagnant wages, workers will insist on catching up. Heavy-handed government intervention, as we've seen at Canada Post, Air Canada and CP Rail, invites lingering resentment and will take all of those outstanding issues to subsequent bargaining.

For generations, Canadians have endorsed the purpose and understood the value of free collective bargaining. To a great extent, their destiny and that of their communities depends upon it. Employees must be free to negotiate freely for wages that will allow them to pay their mortgages and put their children through school. A healthy middle class means a prosperous Canada.