Almost 200 people gathered in Toronto at the end of March to discuss the establishment and protection of labour laws in Canada and internationally as well as why unions matter in today’s global economy.

“Particularly in this day and age when we’re under such attack,” said James Clancy, national president, NUPGE Canada.

Over the course of the conference, hosted by The Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights (CFLR), a panel of experts spoke about the links between labour rights, democracy, equality and social justice.

“We share the belief that the union movement is one of the foundations of a just and democratic society,” said Wayne Hanley, national president, UFCW Canada.

In the 20th century, the labour movement brought benefits to millions of workers through the establishment of paid holidays, 40 hour work weeks, overtime pay, health and safety regulations and a system that protected workers against exploitative employers.

“The right to collective bargaining was also fundamental to workplace equality.”

A fact millions of Canadians are still unaware of.

“And that’s a serious problem for us,” said Hanley. 

“Made even worse by the super rich elite and their corporate and media allies who are winning the battle of messaging when it comes to the value and importance of unions in a fair and just society.”

But unions are where the change will come from.

“People know it as sort of an intuition that inequality is damaging and socially corrosive,” said Richard Wilkinson, acclaimed U.K. author and social epidemiologist.

“When you look at the data it shows that that intuition is truer than I think we ever recognized.”

As the gap between rich and poor grows, said Wilkinson, so too does the whole range of societal problems.

From 1976 onwards, the inequality gap in Canada has been growing steadily. 

“As people got booted out of the labour market because of massive job loss, the gap grew between the top and the bottom,” said Armine Yalnizyn, Senior Associate, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

“But since the middle of the 1990’s, the people at the top increased their income more rapidly.”

And that, said Yalnizyn, is the source of the new income inequality. How the top have benefitted more than anyone else. 

From 1997 to 2007, the top 1 per cent took the biggest share of income growth – almost twice the amount of the 1920’s.

“That’s why we talk about the top 1 per cent and the 99 per cent,” said Yalnizyn.

So does unionization reduce inequality?

“Usually or almost always,” said Lars Osberg, Professor of Economics, Dalhousie University.

“When union density is highest, it has huge role on the social wage. On a whole set of institutions from minimum wage to regulation to wage norms throughout the spectrum of things affecting inequality.”

But that requires good labour laws.

“Labour laws provide significant protection to unions when they’re organizing a workplace,” said Michael Lynk, Professor of Law, University of Western Ontario.

“It neutralizes employers and also protects employees from reprisal – when they’re working well.”

Despite the laws, unions continue to be under attack.

“But the real instruments of accountability,” said Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, “are what unions have given to Canadian democracy.”

In addition to organizing workers, unions have played a key role in advocating on behalf of women’s, environmental, justice, poverty and aboriginal issues.

“Not only for the benefit of their own membership, but Canadians at large,” said Paul Champ, Senior Partner, Champ and Associates.

“Unions have taken a leading role in the passage and enforcement of human rights legislation.”

So when unions are strong, everyone in society benefits.

“Particularly to protect, promote and advocate for the most vulnerable workers in our society,” said Naveen Mehta, General Counsel, UFCW Canada.

“Those individuals in groups that have been forgotten and disregarded by the state.”

Temporary foreign workers or migrant workers. 

“Workers in the most precarious and vulnerable situations,” said Mehta. “It is only trade unions that have the propensity and the ability to bring these sisters and brothers in from the periphery.”

Just one of the many challenges facing unions today as they struggle to hold to the gains of the past while working towards a better future.

Like keeping workers safe. 

“Some people still have the nerve to say that unions and our rights are no longer necessary,” said Ken Georgetti, President, Canadian Labour Congress.

“The Globe and Mail published an editorial that said unions were good at one time but they’ve outlived their usefulness.”

A sentiment echoed by many.

“You hear it all the time,” said Georgetti. “But that Globe and Mail editorial was said in 1886 and they’ve been saying it ever since.”

Ignoring the unions’ role in promoting democracy and fairness in the workplace.

“Being unionized at a young age provided me the ability to provide for my family,” said Georgetti. “To have a decent wage and benefits.”

He bought a house and a car. Took his family on a vacation once a year. 

“That’s all we asked for,” he said. “We thought it was great.”

But those were different times. A time when everyone knew that the way to get ahead was to secure a union job.

“And now it turned that aspiration into resentment,” said Georgetti. “That why should you have what I don’t have, rather than I should have what you have.”

Turning unions into the problem rather than the solution.

“So we have to turn that around,” he said. “And that’s the challenge today.”

Most union members never had to organize their workplace. The union was already in place when they were hired.

The benefits. The pensions. The wages. 

“It didn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “I took it for granted like most people did.”

By joining a union, said Georgetti, a worker can earn an extra $400,000 in their lifetime. And that builds a better middle class with a more robust economy.

“But if our members don’t understand the arguments why a union is valued,” said Georgetti. “Then how can the public understand the value.”

That’s the biggest challenge.

For example, there wasn’t a strike or a lockout in Manitoba last year. Yet 68 per cent of Manitobans think the unions are on strike too much in their province.

“So it means our message isn’t getting through,” said Georgetti. “That the effectiveness of collective bargaining is missing its mark.”

Messaging is critical.

“If you want the public to get it right on us,” said Georgetti. “We have to plan it, frame it and put it out.That’s the challenge we all face.”

Research alone won’t sell the value of unions to the general public.

“We have to make sure that we give the public a view of our organizations that they deserve to see and hear,” said Georgetti.

“Because once we do, those people will come onside.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.