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None of the parties is interested in dealing with causes of inequity

Labour Day falling in the middle of a federal election campaign, union leaders wasted no time pushing for a host of changes to boost the lot of Canadian workers. The list of concerns has only grown during a pandemic that has hit hardest the most vulnerable.

“Canada’s unions are demanding all parties embrace a recovery plan that includes replacing lost jobs with better ones. A plan for creating good jobs that are permanent, pay a living wage, have benefits and pensions, and are unionized. We know that more good union jobs means less inequality,” said Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, in a statement released for Labour Day.

That’s a fairly typical stance today.

In some ways, the union efforts are redundant in that all of the parties are promising to spend large amounts of borrowed money in an effort to buy votes. Entitlement spending is already at record levels – some of it the result of the pandemic and government-imposed lockdowns – and each of the major parties is looking to continue that trend. Votes are more important than sound fiscal policy or the promotion of spending with value to everyone rather than specific voters.

On the other hand, calls for greater supports for workers are very much needed given that none of the political parties is looking to change the underlying economic structure that sees growing inequities, falling incomes and worsening prospects for subsequent generations.

Actual improvements to a rigged system just aren’t on the radar – major donors and the established powers have no interest in real democracy or fairness. Politicians and bureaucrats who benefit from the status quo simply adhere to the party line.

Union leaders and, more widely, those who support progressive causes are fighting back against decades of neoliberalism. They tend to get little notice, though with some time in the spotlight around Labour Day … and elections.

In reality, you can thank the labour movement, and unions in particular, for many of the employee benefits we enjoy today, including a five-day workweek, holidays, vacation time, benefits, pension, and safety measures. But that was then, and this is now, when unions have outlived their usefulness … at least according to conventional (aka barstool) wisdom.

The negative image of unions are the result of decades of business-friendly propaganda coupled with the growth of unionism only in the public sector, where workers are often rightly seen as overpaid, over-benefited, over-pensioned and underworked. In the private sector, unionization rates have been falling steadily for years. Not surprisingly, also falling in the private sector have been wages, benefits and pensions, the latter now being a rare commodity.

While we owe much to the early days of organized labour, today unions are often seen as a stumbling block – see the auto industry – or a drain on taxpayers – see any and all government employees.

In essence, many of us are unhappy that people of less talent and worth – a completely subjective measure – are making more money than we are – a verifiable fact, as wage levels are published, sometimes with relish as in the case of Ontario’s sunshine list.

We’d happily see unions disbanded, wages slashed, benefits eliminated and employees let go. That goes double, triple or a hundred times in the case of government workers.

The problem is, we’ve already seen where this beggar-thy-neighbour philosophy leads: a race to the bottom fueled by corporations that have exported jobs to overseas hellholes such as China, outsourcing and other tricks in the globalization playbook.

Although critics of neoliberalism are affixing the blame where it belongs, anti-union sentiment runs strong in many circles. As rates of unionism fall, especially in the private sector, expect more of us to forget the roots of the labour movement, fuelling even more antagonism.

There are two polarized views about unions and their impact on the economy. On the one hand, some argue the postwar boom was going to happen no matter what, and that increasingly greedy union demands eventually smothered the North American economy and forced manufacturing offshore. The other side sees unions leading to fair wages and a growing middle class, fueling the well-documented postwar expansion. As corporatism and right-wing politics attacked workers and the middle class, only then did the economy founder.

Whatever the root cause, unionization rates have been falling, now typically encompassing those workers who are already affluent and don’t really require protections – government employees.

Unionization now tends to exclude the most vulnerable, especially the growing part of the service sector, the so-called McJobs in the retail, childcare and hospitality industries. These are the very people who would most benefit from unionization, however.

That unions have largely avoided such sectors is a pragmatic issue: it’s very difficult and expensive to organize in those sectors.

In the heyday of unions, employers were large and workers were easy to organize in one drive. Today, those big manufacturers are fewer and farther between. Unions require a greater effort to approach multiple small workplaces. And the sectors that could use the most help tend to have higher turnovers, making it more difficult to organize.

It’s no surprise ,then, that Walmart has been a target in the retail industry: it’s big and has attracted a fair bit of attention for its employment practices. It has, however, been very successful at avoiding unionization, in some cases closing stores to avoid dealing with unions.

So, what does the future hold for unions? Not much, despite stabilizing numbers since dramatic drops in the 1980s and ’90s. Other factors – immigration, education polices, outsourcing, trade agreements – now have a much larger impact on the labour market than do unions.

There is a chance, however, that the pandemic may have some profound changes both on the nature of work and what we expect both of employers and the government.

“Parents faced the pressure of working from home while dealing with their kids’ schooling. Workers faced the anxiety of being thrown out of work and being forced to turn to lower-paid, precarious jobs in the gig economy just to get by. We all faced the constant worry of trying to keep our loved ones safe and healthy,” said Bruske.

“The pandemic also laid bare the inequality in our society. Too many women were forced out of the labour market altogether – pushed to the economic sidelines. Many of these workers are Black, Indigenous, racialized or recent immigrants and migrants. The she-cession isn’t just a catchy phrase, it’s a terrifying reality for so many women today.”

How much influence such issues will have on the election remains to be seen. Also to be determined is whether future governments will make changes to the underlying causes of inequity or whether they’ll simply throw more borrowed money at short-term entitlements that provide no lasting societal benefit.

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