Labour Deserves More Than Tip of Hat

September 10, 2004

John Hamm's Labour Day message asks Nova Scotians to "honour the role of working people." But such proclamations do little to address the realities of deteriorating wages and working conditions that workers face.

Work is changing, but not for the better. Where have the benefits of technology and productivity increases gone? Clearly not to the workers. We work longer, harder, but our paycheques purchase less than they used to. We have less free time and our life is more stressful. Too many Nova Scotians find themselves among the "working poor," having to rely on food banks to feed their households.

Historically, the benefits of productivity increases were shared with workers. But a deregulated labour market and the acceptance by governments of higher rates of unemployment have undermined labour's bargaining position and put a lid on wage demands.

Over the past 30 years, workers have found themselves in an increasingly vulnerable position. The balance of power in our economy has been shifted decisively in favour of corporations. For the most part, big business has been able to shrug off responsibility for employees.

Governments have been key players in this shift. They have heeded corporate urgings to increase the flexibility of the workforce. As a result, governments have put workers at the beck and call of employers under the terms and conditions determined by the employers. The supports that provided workers with some protection and stability have been undermined through, for example, changes to employment insurance programs and minimum labour standards.

The push to greater flexibility is forcing workers to take up struggles they thought they had won years ago. It is hard to believe that in 2004, workers are once again having to struggle for the 40-hour work week and the right to overtime.

Labour legislation in a number of provinces has seriously curtailed the right to reasonable work weeks, overtime wages and to strike. Currently, workers in Nova Scotia must work more than 48 hours in a week before they are entitled to overtime. Minimum-wage levels have not even kept pace with inflation, let alone provided a living wage.

Joining a labour union still appears to be the best way for workers to promote and protect their interests. Unionized workers have fared somewhat better than other workers. Statistics Canada data show that in 2002 only nine per cent of unionized workers in Nova Scotia earned low wages (using an OECD measure), compared with 43 per cent of non-unionized workers. But even unionized workers are still playing catch-up after the recessions and government wage freezes and rollbacks that have plagued our economy.

Female workers, traditionally among the lowest-paid employees, appear to have been making major gains through joining labour unions. In Nova Scotia, only 10 per cent of unionized female workers in 2002 earned low wages, compared with 57 per cent of non-unionized female workers. This relates to what a recent Statistics Canada study has called the "biggest and most profound" change in the labour movement. Since 1977, the percentage of female workers in Canada who are members of unions has tripled to 30 per cent. The labour movement appears to be keeping pace with the growing number of women in the workforce. In 1977, 12 per cent of total union membership were female workers. By 2003, the percentage of unionized workers in Canada who were women had increased to 48.

The big problem is that only 31 per cent of the workforce belongs to a union. While this compares well with the U.S., where 13 per cent are unionized, it still suggests most workers in Canada are unprotected in the context of weak labour legislation.

By contrast, more than 75 per cent of the workforce in Sweden and Denmark belong to trade unions.

To change labour legislation, social programs and alleviate poverty, the labour movement needs to increase its membership among non-unionized workers. The recent successful certification of a Wal-Mart store in Quebec shows labour's determination to organize workers in low-wage workplaces where employers are openly hostile to unions.

How to respond to the broader corporate agenda? Labour unions have long sought to balance a focus on serving members through specific shop floor issues with a broader desire to address social issues. This tension still plays itself out as unions try to decide whether to take on a more businesslike, conciliatory approach, focusing on their members' paycheques, or to use some of their strength to defend and improve social programs. The development of government policies that benefit all citizens needs the input and clout of organized labour.

Working people deserve more than John Hamm's tip of the hat. Labour legislation in Nova Scotia is badly outdated and in need of revision. Workers deserve legislation that forces employers to provide at least a living wage and safe workplaces. They need legislation that supports workers between jobs, through ensuring income and retraining, and they deserve legislation that supports their right to organize.

John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (, an independent public policy research institute.