Unions are still our best hope

September 14, 2005

When it comes to workers and unions there is good and bad news. The good news is that polls show that Canadians’ approval of unions is increasing. Most Canadians think that unions make a positive contribution to society and overall prosperity. And many workers would join a union if given a chance.

These findings don’t come as a real surprise. Unions are the most democratic institutions, when it comes to giving workers a say in the economy. They provide workers with some clout when it comes to challenging increasing corporate dominance of our economy and society.

Unions increase earnings and benefits but they are also strong promoters of social programs like health care that provide services to all Canadians regardless of their income or where they live. Labour organizations also fight for legislative changes, such as improvements to minimum wages and labour standards that benefit all workers, not just union members. Unions are well ahead of the curve, compared to the corporate sector, in taking a stand on the need to move to a more environmentally sustainable economy and to struggle against discrimination.

Unions can also make businesses and economies more productive. Unions pressure employers to invest in new technologies to invest in upgrading skills through education and training. These investments enable workers to create more goods and services with the same amount of labour. In some of the productive economies in the world such as Sweden, 90% of the workers are covered by union negotiated collective agreements.

Unions have an important role to play in making the Nova Scotian economy more productive. The provincial economy is disproportionately creating low wage jobs. Economic productivity in the province is low by Canadian standards. Investment in research and development, a key component in developing a productive economy, is falling behind the rate of investment in the rest of Canada, which is already low by international standards. Too many employers in Nova Scotia are relying on low wages and extracting longer hours from their employees to keep their businesses profitable, rather than investing in research and development and new technologies.

In a recent survey of collective agreements, Statistics Canada has found that agreements between unions and companies are increasingly focusing on making workplaces healthier and safer, on employment security and on education and training. These measures support workers in adjusting to and taking advantage of technological changes and increase the productivity of companies. Eighty percent of the employers involved in the survey of unionized companies concluded that labour – management relations were good and none felt that the relations were poor.

Here’s the bad news. Workers in Nova Scotia are falling behind economically and governments and corporations are trying to undermine efforts by unions to support workers.

The overall picture for workers in Canada is not pretty. Corporate profits are “skyrocketing” according to Statistics Canada. Employers are raking in a record portion of the wealth being created in our economy. On the other hand the creators of this wealth, workers, are being left out in the cold.

Real earnings across the country have barely kept pace with the cost of living and in Nova Scotia earnings are actually declining. The standard workweek is eroding as many predominantly low income earners are struggling to make ends meet through part-time low wage jobs. Meanwhile an increasing number of workers are working more than 40 hours a week from just under 20% in 1976 to almost 30% in 2001. Low income folks are slipping further behind as income inequality increases.

Coinciding with these changes is the decreased ability of workers to influence economic activity and the society around them. The percentage of workers represented by labour unions, the traditional promoters of workers’ interests and social programs, has been on the decline. Twenty-five years of attacks by the corporate sector and governments on unions’ ability to promote the interests of workers have left their toll. The proportion of the Canadian workers belonging to a union has decreased to 31%, from 38% in 1981. In Nova Scotia the overall number of union members continues to increase but the percent of the overall workforce that is unionized has decreased from 34% to 29%. Nova Scotia has the second lowest rate in Canada of unionization in the private sector (12.4%).

Canadian academic research has concluded that declining unionization is not, as some would have it, due to changes in the economy making unions out of date or even because workers don’t want to join a union. In fact, the popularity of unions has been increasing and the proportion of workers who say they would join a union has not decreased. No, the research shows that the primary reason for declining unionization in Canada is anti-union initiatives by governments and employers.

Rather than support union efforts to improve workers’ work lives, most provincial governments have introduced US-style labour legislation that makes it harder for unions to negotiate. Governments have lengthened and complicated the process of organizing a union in a workplace. Management in turn has jumped at the opportunity to intimidate workers and put legal obstacles in the union’s way. British Columbia went to a more streamlined union organizing system in the 90s and worker success at unionizing increased.

Unions aren’t perfect. But they do offer workers the best opportunity to promote workers interests in the workplace and they do help make the economy work for all citizens. Indications are that many more workers would join a union if given a chance. The provincial government needs to provide legislation that ensures all workers get that chance.

A version of this article was published in the Chronicle Herald. John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (www.policyalternatives.ca), an independent public policy research institute.