A photo of Alberta Union of Provincial Employees members on strike in July 1980 in defiance of Progressive Conservative Premier Peter Lougheed’s no-strike legislation.
Alberta Union of Provincial Employees members on strike in July 1980 in defiance of Progressive Conservative Premier Peter Lougheed’s no-strike legislation. Credit: Alberta Union of Provincial Employees Credit: Alberta Union of Provincial Employees

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 on the rise.

This tells a compelling story about the state of the unions in North America as the last long weekend of the summer rolls around again.

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

Here in Alberta, we’ve even seen a ridiculous effort by the United Conservative Party (UCP) government try to turn the Labour Day weekend into the Alberta Day weekend. 

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 Astro-Turf groups and “think tanks” that purport to prove organized working people are somehow a drain on the economy.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1870s in Canada and a decade later in the United States, the first Monday of September was designated Labour Day in honour of the achievements of working people, and not incidentally those of their fraternal 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. Where economic inequality becomes less severe, democracy is strengthened. 

This is particularly true at this point in history when the labour movement is increasingly inspired and carried by our union sisters, the working women of the world. So the right’s unending War on Unions is a war on women too – on women’s rights, women’s equality and women’s pay. 

But as the old labour hymn, Solidarity Forever, reminds us: “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 one per cent 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 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 them.

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 that losers win.

Yet while barely 10 per cent of American workers belong to a union today, half as many as did 35 years ago, union membership remains an aspiration to huge numbers of American workers.

Since the mid-teens, surveys 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, a 2018 survey by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found.

Early this year, a poll by the Pew Research Center indicated that 58 per cent of U.S. adults believed plummeting rates of union membership in the United States over the past 30 years have been bad for the country, and 61 per cent said it was bad for working people. 

In the fall of 2021, a survey by the Gallup polling organization showed 68 per cent of Americans approved of labour unions – the highest approval rating for unions Gallup had found since 1965. Ninety per cent pf Democratic Party voters supported unions, according to that poll, and even 47 per cent of Republicans approved. 

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 that falsely conclude these democratic institutions restrict worker freedom, to the unending stream of journalistic vituperation directed at unions.

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

Perhaps this explains the string of recent organizing successes by unions in Canada and the United States at chain coffee stores like Starbucks, not to mention Amazon warehouses

Union membership numbers are better in Canada – still about 30 per cent – despite consistent and intensifying efforts by right-wing legislators especially here in Alberta 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 devoutly 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, Astro-Turfers 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 continuing struggle for a minimum wage that is a living 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….”

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...