Essay: The staying power of unions

November 1, 2014

The spring air, typically redolent with a sense of hope and renewal, hung over Queen's Park in May 2014 like a menacing storm cloud ready to break into a twister.

Two years of rancorous, scandal-ridden minority government had collapsed. Writ dropped, Ontarians faced a stark political reality: the prospect of a hard-right Progressive Conservative leader intent on declaring outright war on the province's labour movement.

The right to collective bargaining was going on political trial.

If successful, the political contagion of a provincial government willing to pull out all the stops to break the power of Ontario's labour movement would have doubtlessly spread to other Canadian provinces.

For the labour movement, it had the feel of an existential crisis.

We all know how that story ended: the Progressive Conservatives were roundly defeated at the polls and the leader not only resigned but faced a virtual caucus revolt to push him out as fast as politically possible.

Another year in the life of Canada's labour movement. It's a movement that from day one had to fight to secure workers' rights. It's a movement that is constantly under trial, politically and at the bargaining table. It's a movement whose staying power depends on the strongly held belief that doing things together is better than going it alone.

No one ever handed unions an easy victory and no one likely ever will. Perhaps that is part of their staying power.

* * *

Steps from Queen's Park, there is a simple plaque commemorating a watershed moment for Canada's labour movement. In the spring of 1872, workers represented by the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike for the right to a nine-hour work day—three hours less than what was normal at the time. By mid-April, they were joined by 10,000 working-class supporters at Queen's Park. Solidarity in motion.

Some members of the strike committee did jail time. Some lost their jobs. But, eventually, there was a payoff. The Trade Union Act of 1872 legalized union activity in Canada. And after that strike of 1872, the fight for a shorter work week became a core focus of union negotiations. We've all benefited from that bargaining chip, whether we're unionized or not.

It has become cliché to thank unions for the eight-hour work week, but it did not come without sacrifice and struggle.

Those collective efforts have had staying power.

* * *

The labour movement found its stride marching to the heartbeat of the industrial revolution. The movement often sought to secure basic human rights for worker safety. But it also aimed to protect the fundamentals of the craft or the trade that a worker was plying, particularly following the deskilling efforts under Taylorism, which attempted to rationalize the breaking down of craft work into individual, repetitive tasks (as opposed to allowing a worker to, for instance, make a chair from start to finish).

By 1889, back when Canada had royal commissions on emerging socio-economic issues, the plight of the exploited worker became a national concern. The federal government created a Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital—something that would be almost unthinkable in today's political zeitgeist. Given the rise of precarious work, it is possible a future government would revisit the issue.

Back in 1889, the commission reported that many workers were being injured on the job. They labored under oppressive working conditions. The solution? Government intervention to correct the excesses of capitalism.

But even a royal commission endorsement of workers' rights was small potatoes. It would take the courage of workers to act en masse, on behalf of all workers' rights. And that was only a few decades away.

Canada after the First World War wasn't exactly a haven for good jobs. There was high income inequality, high unemployment, high inflation and massive worker unrest. There were more than 400 strikes in Canada in 1919-20.

The flashpoint for resistance came in May 1919, when the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called for a general strike after negotiations broke down between building and metal trades workers and their employers. Within hours, more than 30,000 workers walked off the job. They closed the factories. They stopped the trains. The city ground to a standstill.

Many paid a price. Some strike leaders were convicted of trying to overthrow the government. A charge by RCMP officers resulted in many casualties and one death.
But the true staying power of the labour movement emerged from a decision among western Canadian unions to become "one big union" and try to reverse exploitative working conditions. Their point was not lost.

The royal commission that resulted from this disruption warned, "if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence...then the Government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital."

It took decades but eventually workers' rights took root in Canada.

* * *

In 1937, Canada was coming to grips with what had become the Great Depression, with the mass poverty and increasing social unrest it brought. It was also the year collective bargaining was officially recognized in Canada following a strike by the United Auto Workers at the General Motors plant in Oshawa.

There were good reasons the automobile became a symbol of hope and prosperity in North America. This was the middle-class dream: own your home, buy a car, and enjoy a modicum of job security in return for hard work, expertise and company loyalty. It was good for the company, it was good for capitalism, it was good for families.

In today's political climate, where some politicians deride the idea of job security in an attempt to score cheap political points, and others make empty promises to help the middle class and working families, that history is readily forgotten—to our detriment. The promise of a vibrant middle class requires the same sensibility as a vibrant democracy: neither survives on mere autopilot. Complacency is a killer.

* * *

As I've written before on the CCPA's Behind the Numbers blog, unions can be a great equalizer in society. Before the 1950s, Canada didn't have a strong middle class. Income inequality was higher. The quality of life was not what it is today.

Unions and broadly shared prosperity go hand in hand. Economist Jordan Brennan's research (see "Labour unions in the 21st century?" in the September 2014 Monitor) shows that as union density grew modestly between 1910 and 1940, hourly earnings grew by 43%. But between 1940 and 1977, union density in Canada doubled and hourly earnings tripled. During this same period, as unionization was on its steady ascent, income inequality in Canada dropped.

Before the Second World War, the story in Canada was really one of the rich and the rest of us. But the rise of unionized workers in the 1950s, '60s and '70s really made a difference. That's when Canada got busy building its middle class, solidifying the notion that as the economy grew, prosperity should be shared.

Since 1977, income inequality has gotten worse, mirroring many of the trends in place before Canada's labour movement was fully entrenched. As union density declined after 1977 so did hourly earnings. It's a story that affects us all, whether we're among the lucky ones earning more than 90% of the rest of Canadians, or whether we're among Canada's most vulnerable.

It matters—unions matter—in several ways.

With the rise of the middle class came the ability of people to pool their tax contributions to pay for public services that benefit everyone. I was born a farm kid, with dim chances for a university education, for a life as a writer and researcher. But in 1965, the federal government promised to implement three public programs: universal public health care, public pensions to greatly reduce poverty among seniors, and affordable university tuition.

I was the first in my immediate family to go to university thanks to that policy decision. Canadian taxpayers had given themselves the ultimate gift: opportunity.

But yesterday's gains hold no ironclad promise for tomorrow's workers.

* * *

It has only been 68 years since Canadian political parties agreed to uphold one of the most important legal decisions affecting unionized workers. It is called the Rand Formula, a 1946 legal judgment granting workers the right to include a union dues clause in their collective bargaining agreements.

This right to expect all unionized workers to contribute, by way of dues, to the viability of a union is exactly what the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader was hoping to undermine in his bid for power. The Rand Formula articulates the ultimate expression of union solidarity. Everyone contributes, everyone benefits.

It is a principle of collective bargaining that is as relevant today as it was in the contested days of the industrial revolution.

* * *

The anti-union trope goes like this. During the industrial revolution, where exploitation of desperate blue-collar workers was rampant, unions served a purpose. They secured safer working conditions. But Canada has moved on. What, possibly, do educated white-collar workers have to gain from a union?

Fifty years ago, at the height of Canada's 'golden era' for the country's rising middle class, a new union formed in Ontario. It wasn't a union of mechanics and labourers. It was a union of teachers, researchers and librarians under the banner of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. It too, has shown staying power, bargaining for fair working terms for its members while trying to set a higher bar for public investment in an affordable, quality university system.

Unions are never about individual pay, though the premium is undeniable. They're also about setting the terms for better jobs, a condition critical to the longevity of the middle class.

Today, young academics find themselves completing their PhD studies only to land in an uncharitable work reality; one that is precarious, low-paying, the antithesis of the promise of a well-trained academic. No one is immune to workplace exploitation.

The challenges to collective action are constant and constantly changing. That's why unions are a great equalizer, a balancing act within capitalism, potentially even a game changer for something revolutionary. That is part of their tremendous staying power. It's why unions matter.

Trish Hennessy is the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives–Ontario and a former employee with the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. This article originally appeared in the OCUFA magazine Academic Matters.