Rally and march to raise the minimum wage in America. Photo: The All-Nite Images/Flickr

Happy Labour Day!

Overall union membership may be shrinking, but the number of workers who wish they had a union and would vote to join one if they could appears to be on the rise.

This tells an interesting story about the state of affairs in North America as the last long weekend of the summer rolls around again.

Alas, in Canada as in the United States, the Labour Day weekend has lately become an occasion on which conservative news media operations pack their pages with feverish attacks on the right of working people to join unions and bargain their working conditions together.

Given the Orwellian zeitgeist of the past 30 years in the industrialized West, these jeremiads often use language that says the opposite of what is really meant — so, for example, denial of the right to bargain together becomes the “right to work.”

Such editorializing is often accompanied by misleading “studies” by corporate-financed Astroturf groups and “think tanks” that purport to prove organized working people are somehow a drain on the economy.

It wasn’t always so. Since the 1870s in Canada and a decade later in the United States, the first Monday of September has been designated Labour Day in honour of the achievements of working people, and not incidentally those of their fraternal collective bargaining organizations.

Unions, of course, are just groups of working people who pool their modest individual strength to bargain with employers to ensure a fair share of the great wealth they create ends up in the hands of ordinary families.

As recent history shows, when unions are strongest, the civic and economic well-being of a nation improves and economic and political inequality becomes less severe.

As the old labour hymn, Solidarity Forever, says: “what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one … but the union makes us strong!”

No wonder the people we have come to know as The 1% want us to have no part of that!

Literally billions of dollars have been spent over the past 30 years by the globalizing internationale and the radical market-fundamentalist national political parties it supports to persuade working people they don’t need unions, and governments that it’s of paramount importance to make it difficult for working people to join unions.

On the legislative front, these efforts have enjoyed considerable success — particularly in the United States, where that country’s 18th-century constitution effectively suppresses the fundamental right of working people to organize and the ability of democratically minded legislators to prevent big money from buying elections. Even when that effort falls short, as we have seen, the U.S. constitution finds ways to ensure losers win.

Yet while barely 10 per cent of American workers belong to a union today, half as many as did 30 years ago, union membership remains an aspiration to huge numbers of American workers.

A recent survey in the United States showed that interest in joining a union is at a 40-year high. Nearly half of all non-unionized workers in the United States would join a union … if they could.

This is up from about a third in surveys in 1977 and 1995, the survey by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found.

Think about this. It’s a remarkable trend, given the efforts that have been put into making unions unappealing to workers — from the casual defamation of labour leaders as “union bosses,” to the many bogus studies showing these democratic institutions restrict worker freedom, to the unending stream of journalistic vituperation directed at unions.

Yet it appears despite the herculean efforts of the American right, increasing numbers of workers are doing the math.

Union membership numbers are better in Canada — about 30 per cent — despite consistent and intensifying efforts by right-wing legislators to make it harder to form unions and negotiate fair contracts. Here too, though, union penetration has fallen from about 40 per cent in the early 1980s.

It is reasonable to assume a similarly growing number of Canadian working people shut out of union membership also wish they could bargain collectively.

Thankfully, our 20th-century Canadian Constitution has allowed true collective bargaining to be enshrined as a right of working people.

This is why, one supposes, media, Astroturfers and so-called conservatives in this country are working so hard to undermine the labour movement and to create an anti-union, market-fundamentalist dystopia.

And this is why unions must continue to use their clout to fight not just for their members, but for all working people — an effort embodied in the struggle for a $15 minimum wage.

As the old song says … “It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade; Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid; Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made; But the union makes us strong….”

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: The All-Nite Images/Flickr

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...