By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.
-Martin Luther King speaking in 1961
On Labour Day 2011, unions in North America are facing historic challenges. Governments and corporations are increasingly disputing the right of unions to exist and to represent working people. This is true not just in the United States. Here in Canada the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Catherine Swift, told the London Free Press:
What would be ideal is getting rid of public-sector unions entirely.
Not that long ago such a view would have been considered extremist. Now it is common in both much of the business community and the mainstream media.
So Labour Day is a good time to review both what unions have given us and what has been lost in much of the world as governments reduce the rights of working people to democratically choose to act collectively.
Most people will acknowledge some of the legacy we have from unions. Unionized workplace pioneered the eight-hour day and the five-day week. They introduced health and safety rules and the ending of child labour. An Australian video encapsulated it rather well here.
But unions do much more. They help level the playing field both in the workplace and in society as a whole. In fact, as Dr. King suggested above, the argument can be made that since the end of WWII it was unions that were responsible for us having a prosperous middle class.
At the workplace level there is an enormous power imbalance between an individual employee and the boss. Acting with other workers through a union, that employee has a say on issues like wages, hours of work, schedules and working conditions.
Unions have promoted the rights of women and opposed racial discrimination. In unionized workplaces, the gap in pay between these groups and white men is smaller than is true for society as a whole. There are grievance procedures to protect their rights.
While some would stoutly deny it, many employers benefit from unions. Union employees tend to be more productive. Most union contracts contain education and training provisions. Better compensation and more respectful workplaces reduce the cost of employee turnover.
The benefits of unions reach beyond union workplaces. Non-union employers will often raise wages either to keep unions out or to compete with union shops for employees.
In society as a whole unions have played an important role in promoting social and economic equality.
Last autumn three international organizations published reports linking the decline of unions with growing economic inequality and the recent economic crisis. UNICEF made among the most powerful statements, saying:
The only sustainable way to reduce inequality…is to stop the underlying widening of wages and income from capital. In particular we have to make sure people are capable of being in employment and earning wages that keep them and their families out of poverty.
The International Labour Organization called for more effective collective bargaining and for higher minimum wages.
And the International Monetary Fund, no radical left-wing organization, called for a restoration of bargaining power for low- and middle-income workers.
The common theme here is that for 30 years the influence of unions has been falling and for 30 years wages have been stagnant and profits have risen.
Unions have exercised an influence that goes beyond the economics of the workplace. Historically, unions were among the strongest advocates for Medicare and the Canada Pension Plan. The Canadian Labour Congress and its affiliates continue to be the most powerful voice for better public pensions for everyone. More recently, and closer to home, it was the unremitting campaign of the BC Federation of Labour that finally forced the government to end its 10-year freeze of the minimum wage.
Politically, unions have provided a balance to the power of money. This is something that the moneyed powerful cannot stand. That is why in the United States Republicans are working to destroy collective bargaining rights for unions. That is why in Canada grandees like Catherine Swift call for the elimination of public sector unions.
So this Labour Day spend a minute to think about what Canada would look like today if unions had not been there. And spend a minute thinking about what our future would look like with no balance at all to the power of money.
This article first appeared in Policy Note.