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Unions, equality and democracy

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Unions are an important force for a more democratic society, and a major reason why Canada is still a more equal country than the United States. That is why it is profoundly disturbing that Canadian conservatives have recently embraced the extreme anti-union agenda of the American right.

Independent labour movements have always been front and centre in the fight for political democracy, and they are almost always severely repressed by authoritarian regimes. International conventions, including ILO Convention 87 signed by Canada, recognize freedom of association and the right of workers to organize unions as fundamental human rights.

Unions have been a key force for fair wages and decent benefits, and for more democracy and due process in the workplace. Collective agreements protect against arbitrary work rules, discrimination and unequal pay for similar work, and unfair treatment and dismissal.

At their best, unions have fought not only for their members, but also for fundamental social reforms which benefit all working people, such as universal public health care, decent pensions, paid time off the job, and accessible and affordable education. Canada's unions have never been politically monolithic, but they have been a consistent force for a more progressive Canada.

Mainstream international economic organizations such as the OECD, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have recognized that unions promote more equitable societies without undermining good economic performance. Countries with strong unions have fewer extremes of rich and poor, and stronger public services and social safety nets.

Some advanced industrial countries with still strong labour movements, such as Germany and the Nordic countries, enjoy very high productivity and very low unemployment. And some of the most successful developing countries in terms of both growth and poverty reduction, notably Brazil, have strong and growing trade unions.

A 2002 study by the World Bank concluded that "union density has a very weak association, or perhaps no association, with economic performance indicators such as the unemployment rate, inflation, the employment rate, real compensation growth, labor supply, adjustment speed to wage shocks, real wage flexibility, and labor and total factor productivity. There is, however, one significant exception: union density correlates negatively with labor earnings inequality."

In the United States today, unions represent just one in eight workers, and less than 7 per cent of private sector workers. The decline of unions since Reagan was president is closely associated with the decline of middle-class jobs, the rise of extreme income inequality, growing economic insecurity and poverty, and the severe erosion of the progressive New Deal and Great Society traditions in American public policy and politics.

Within the United States, the "right to work" states which make union membership an option for individuals have lower average wages -- $1,500 less per year -- and experience even greater inequality than the country as a whole. Meanwhile, some U.S. states with relatively strong unions -- such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont and Iowa -- have unemployment rates of 6 per cent or less and superior social outcomes.

Canada's relatively stronger unions have limited to some degree the trend to greater inequality and falling wages for the middle class. And this has certainly not undermined our economic performance compared to the United States. Even hard-hit Ontario (which has the second lowest unionization rate in Canada after Alberta) has an unemployment rate significantly below the U.S. average.

Unions still represent about one in three Canadian workers, and one in five private sector workers. A key reason for this relative strength is that our labour laws, by and large, continue to support the democratic decision of workers to join unions and to collectively bargain with their employers.

To be sure, conservative governments have made it harder for workers to organize and to bargain effectively. But it is only very recently that the political right, most notably the Ontario Conservatives, have embraced U.S. laws which make effective union representation almost impossible.

"Right to work" laws allow workers to be "free riders" who can refuse to pay union dues, even though they continue to benefit from higher union wages and benefits, and even though unions still have a duty to provide fair representation to non members in a unionized workplace.

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the so-called Rand Formula, which allows workers to opt out of union membership, but requires them to pay dues, sometimes to a charity.

The Canadian right-wing are also pressing for changes to labour laws which, as in Bill C-377 now making its way through the House of Commons, would require unions to make public detailed financial reports on all forms of advocacy, such as lobbying and campaigns on public issues. This is mimicking U.S. law, and is a transparent first step to silencing union activity outside the narrow confines of the workplace.

Canadian unions have accepted stringent limits on organizational financial contributions to political parties, since the rules apply equally to unions and corporations and employer associations. But nobody on the radical right is calling for corporate disclosure of tax deductible spending on lobbying and political advocacy. And nobody is asking employer associations to represent businesses who do not pay dues.

The new right-wing attack on unions is not about creating shared prosperity or about making unions more democratic. Unions are imperfect institutions, but they belong to their members, and it is union members who should determine how the labour movement should participate in democratic discussion.

The cause of democratic equality will be in severe jeopardy if we undermine unions as a voice for workers in the workplace and in the wider society.

This article was first posted on Behind the Numbers.

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