09/05/2015 09:16 EDT | Updated 09/05/2016 05:59 EDT

It's Time for Workers to Demand the Change They Want

Demonstrators rally for a $15 minimum wage before a meeting of the wage board in New York, Monday, June 15, 2015. The board, created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, will consider a minimum wage increase for New York's fast-food workers. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Over the last decade, a century's worth of gains for workers and their families have been threatened by international market forces that are driving down wages and outmoded labour laws that are failing to protect workers. However, this new global reality also presents an identity crisis for the very labour movement that has historically provided the counterbalance to corporate power.

Unions are being challenged to reimagine themselves beyond their immediate membership -- to include all working people, the unemployed, the precariously employed, the retired and the many diverse communities who are being marginalized within today's economy.

It has taken considerable energy to overcome the roadblocks, but the Ontario Federation of Labour has put this inclusive objective at the heart of a bold new approach to grassroots activism. In cities and towns across Ontario, we are inviting people from all walks of life to join union members in building a broad-based movement to call on governments to deliver the opportunities we need, the jobs we deserve and, indeed, to create the change we want.

The Status Quo Isn't Working for Workers

The past nine years of a Harper-led Conservative government have caused employment rates to drop for the first time since the 1950s, and new job creation is slower than any period since World War II. However, the economic picture isn't much better for those who are fortunate enough to find work. Recent studies have shown that precarious employment has become the new normal for the first time in history. That means that nearly 50 per cent of workers lack benefits or job security and are languishing in part-time, temporary, contract, or casual positions. This precarious workforce has devastating spillover effects on every aspect of the social and economic life, from delaying family planning to diminishing retirement savings.

Young people entering the workforce today are expected to be the first generation in history to have a lower standard of living than their parents. It simply doesn't make sense.

Change Must Start from the Bottom

In 2014, Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak campaigned on a plan to import American-style anti-union laws that would strip the basic rights of every worker. The Ontario Federation of Labour led a province-wide campaign against the Conservative plan and voters across Ontario overwhelmingly rejected these divisive politics of envy.

Stopping this attack on workers' rights renewed the resolve of union members to extend their bargaining table victories to every worker by joining non-unionized workers in fighting to change the laws of the land. After all, no one truly prospers unless everyone prospers.

For the country's labour unions, this alarming workforce transformation is triggering a profound reimagining of the labour movement. We are confronting the harsh reality that declining union density and an increasingly precarious workforce are dragging down wages and benefits faster than union standards can pull them up. Unions can no longer respond through self-preservation at the expense of other workers. Many young workers today feel betrayed by two-tier wages, benefits and pension that have often cemented inequality right into their collective agreement. A truly universal labour movement requires a bottom-up approach to worker action that is driven by a movement of all working people, the unemployed, the precariously employed, the retired and the many diverse communities who are being marginalized within today's economy. The Ontario Federation of Labour, which has historically only given voice to unionized workers, is now partnering with diverse and vulnerable communities to mount a vigorous defence for the rights and interests of every worker.

The most poignant illustration of this new movement is the incredible campaign for a $15/hour minimum wage that is sweeping across the United States and Canada. Here in Ontario, public pressure secured the adoption of annual minimum wage increases that will keep pace with inflation, but the campaign to lift the minimum wage above the poverty line continues to gain momentum.

Ontario's labour movement has taken this campaign even further by demanding a total overhaul of the province's labour laws to lift employment standards for every worker and make it easier for workers to join a union. We believe that every job should be a pathway out of poverty.

However, for organized labour to maintain relevance and grow support, we must extend our work beyond the confines of the workplace.

In 2013, authour and activist Naomi Klein said that if labour unions would become "the voice for a boldly different economic vision, one that provides solutions to the attacks on working people, on poor people, and the attacks on the Earth itself, then there will be no worries about the continued relevance of the labour movement."

It is precisely these values that led the Ontario Federation of Labour to create the Ontario Common Front -- an unprecedented movement of more than 90 labour and community groups -- so that, together, we can fight for all working people and protect the interests of the next generation. As Klein would say, we must all be on the "front lines of the fight for the future."

Creating the Change We Want

It is time for working people to put forward big, bold ideas about the kind of society we want to live in. We cannot be constrained by goals that today seem distant -- like equity and equality for all, a green economy, free tuition, retirement security, universal pharmacare, or a guaranteed minimum income. These are the very ideas that are inspiring and motivating communities into action.

However, positive change cannot start until we elect a government that will listen to voters, promote equity and foster an economy that provides opportunities for everyone.

It is not surprising that the wave of support for Thomas Mulcair's optimistic plan is growing across the country. For those who aspire to a better Canada, the NDP are clearly the better choice. The federal election on October 19 gives us the chance to cast our ballots for the change we want. On October 20, we must begin the hard work of making our bold ideas a reality.


Canadians' Attitudes On Unions (2013)