Unions Matter: Advancing Democracy, Economic Equality, and Social Justice

By Edited by Matthew Behrens
Between the Lines, November 30, 2013, $26.95

One of the triumphs of neoliberalism is the demonization of unions.

Thanks to a dominant discourse that has been imagined by Canada’s 1%, inspired by Thatcherism and actively and passively fed to us through complicit journalists, many Canadians have no idea how unions protect them, regardless of whether or not they’re members of a union.

This creates an intense urgency: union activists must express their necessity or risk greater decline.

Nearly all activists feel this urgency and, unsurprisingly, several books and articles on the importance of unions have recently been written (including my own).

One of these books is Unions Matter, edited by Matthew Behrens for the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights. Twelve articles divided into three parts were drawn from the International Conference on Labour Rights and Their Impact on Democracy, Economic Equality and Social Justice.

Held in March 2013, the conference was organized by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the National Union of Public and General Employees and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

The anthology is critical for anyone in need of a reference tool for the most up-to-date statistics that relate to unions: income breakdowns, unionization rates and all the charts based on the Gini coefficient that you can handle! It covers strike statistics, how unions have advanced human rights in Canada and court decisions that protect and enshrine workers’ right to strike.

Unlikely to convince someone who is anti-union on its own, Unions Matter provides the fodder for union activists to be able to make important arguments in favour of unionization. Even more important, the statistics and arguments in Unions Matter could be used by labour activists to convince the ambivalent of the fact that, yes, unions matter.

Section one, “Reducing Income Inequality Through Labour Rights,” gives an impressive overview of the role that unions have played to reorganize wealth in Canada. As union density has dropped, Canadian society has become objectively more unequal. The data presented in this section demonstrates that the trend between union density and inequality is not casual, but directly connected.

Unions are not just agents of economic redistribution, though. In section two, “Promoting Democracy, Economic Equality and Social Rights,” the articles examine the role that unions have played and should play in defending social rights and fighting against injustice. The section examines how, through activism rather than simply through structural redistribution, unions defend democracy and the human rights of all people, regardless of union membership.

The only full-chapter case study is featured in the second section, written by Naveen Mehta from the UFCW. Mehta highlights the ways in which UFCW has defended workers who have come to Canada through the Temporary Foreign Workers Program and argues that the strength of the UFCW is their ability to reach beyond the role of a traditional union and help organize and bring fairness to this exploited class of workers.

“From showing migrant workers how to bank to creating community associations, UFCW Canada operates as an established settlement agency, as a successful immigration advocate and, of course, as a union at the workplace,” Mehta writes. “Only in an environment where a robust labour movement thrives can there be meaningful reductions in the destitution and despair faced by migrant workers.”

Clearly, this is a call for unions to re-imagine their roles in civil society and look for new and creative ways to organize workers.

Section three, “Constitutional Protection of Labour Rights,” examines how the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms should protect collective bargaining rights, despite recent attacks levelled by various governments on workers’ right to freely bargain and legally strike. It gathers stories of various court decisions and conventions that should protect workers’ rights to strike.

This section is especially important considering how often unions have been forced to accept concessions contracts through legislative measures.

Unions Matter would have been an enormous help for me when I set out to write From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement. The arguments are strong and help build an irrefutable case that unions are a key element to a fair society.

It isn’t, though, a book for the slightly interested. Unions Matter is dense and academic. With many of the arguments premised on the same data, it is, at times, repetitive and difficult to read. Rather than read from front to back, readers should choose the articles that interest them the most and consume the rest, driven by their interests.

Also, the book relies too heavily on legal arguments that justify or defend the labour movement as potential organizing strategies. While a legal strategy, or rights-based strategy can be both helpful and necessary, it can be resource intensive, drawn out and demobilizing. Whenever possible, labour activists should be looking for creative ways to challenge management and politicians that don’t require lengthy legal battles or expensive court cases.

Unions Matter should be required reading though, for any activist, communications officer or elected representative involved in promoting the labour movement.

Perhaps the most important message is not that unions play an important structural role in resource distribution, but that they must engage in political battles. While facts and arguments are necessary to convince people of the need for unions, unions themselves need to be politically active, fighting for the fights of all Canadians, not just their members.

Armine Yalnizyan ends her chapter by arguing that the greatest threat to income distribution is the profits amassed by the 1%, and that unions cannot necessarily stop this trend through collective bargaining alone. “Ultimately,” Yalnizyan writes, “the long-term impact of unions on Canadian trends in economic inequality is primarily through their political action… and only secondarily through their direct impact on wages.”

Indeed, building the necessary campaign to fight neoliberal and austerity measures will require unions to engage in political action. While Unions Matter might not provide union activists with a road map on how to do that, it does offer the requisite facts to shut down any anti-union, right wing argument that might be floating around the ether.  

Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the rabble.ca series UP! Canadian Labour Rising. Nora is on leave as an editor with the Canadian Association of Labour Media while she takes care of infant twins. Check out Nora’s blog on rabble here.

Nora Loreto

Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the Canadian Association...