Throughout history, democratization and organized labour have been inextricably connected. Workers’ groups were the driving force behind the French Revolutions of 1848, which established, among other things, unemployment institutions and led to a recognition of the people’s “right to work.” The Arab Spring was also largely union-driven; the April 16 movement, which was at the centre of the uprising in Egypt, is named after the date of a planned textile workers’ protest that was crushed by state force in 2008. The inspirational Bolivian revolution that took place between 2000 and 2005, during which the long-oppressed indigenous population deposed a dictator and took back its water supply, was also built upon union organization.
Around the world, labour unions are at the crest of extremely exciting developments in democratization and social justice. In Canada, however, where organized labour has been the cornerstone of our democratic and social progress for more than a century, unions are becoming increasingly unpopular. Although the business world has always been hostile to workers’ rights, recently the working class (historically coterminous with organized labour) has developed a significant antipathy towards unions. These anti-union sentiments culminated in the highly publicized incident during the recent Air Canada wildcat strike, in which a man spat in the face of a female unionist.
Amid the economic uncertainty following the recession of 2008, many Canadians have directed their frustrations at public-sector workers, whom they accuse of greediness amid scarcity. The vice-president of an Ontario business group articulated this sentiment well in a recent National Post article: “We’re coming out of a very painful recession, there are obviously dark clouds out there,” he explained. “I think the public generally are looking at their own circumstances and saying ‘We’ve taken a big hit and meanwhile we’re seeing government employees living a good lifestyle on our dime.’” Likewise, a recent Globe and Mail article notes that many Canadian workers see their unionized counterparts as “out-of-touch elitists mocking hard-pressed taxpayers with their job security, regular hours, and gold-plated pensions.”
Although frustration is understandable in tough economic times, it must be understood that if working people in Canada — indeed anywhere — are to see improvements in their work conditions, job security, and standard of living, both history and common sense tell us that it will be through more, not less, labour organization. It is a virtual axiom of economics that market forces, if unrestrained by regulation and collective bargaining, depress wages and working conditions to sub-human levels, while increasing unemployment and wealth inequalities. Anyone interested to know what life is like in unionless societies need only take a look at the poorer developing nations or, better yet, our own history, which demonstrates unequivocally the necessity of collective bargaining rights for decent survival.
Canada has organized labour to thank for the vast majority of social advances that have made life in this country worth living for the majority of its citizens, including the jewel in the crown of Canadian society: universal health care. As historian Desmond Morton puts it “In 1870, sickness, injury, unemployment and old age had been economic catastrophes: by 1970, most Canadians could depend on Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, workers’ compensation plans, and a web of government-backed pension and security plans. Almost every significant advance had been foreseen and fought for by the labour movement and, by the same token, denounced as ruinous to the economy by business leaders and their powerful allies.”
Unions, like immigrants, are popular scapegoats for economic troubles, whatever their cause. During recessions, the frustrations of the un- and underemployed are easily misdirected at those who fare relatively well — a fact which the business community eagerly exploits. As early as the global recession of 1873, Morton observes, “Employers took advantage of the crisis to rid themselves of troublesome unions and their spokesmen.” During the Great Depression, labour was dealt a major blow when a mining strike was broken up by state violence, killing three miners. Throughout the financial crisis of the 1970s, organized labourers — despite their constant willingness to accept wage freezes — were blamed for the rampant inflation caused by bad import policies.
The same scapegoating is easily visible today in the mainstream press. During the recent mail strike, one could read again and again that postal workers must “wake up to the new reality” of electronic communication and decreased mail volume. As one commentator put it, management, which faces “daunting challenges,” had to deal with its “bloated workforce” and “get its labour costs under control” or face catastrophe. The fact that Canada Post — a Crown Corporation which is mandated only to break even while providing a public service — had posted profits for 15 consecutive years, including a record $443 million in the year of the strike, was hardly mentioned in discussions of this “daunting new reality.” Oddly enough, the out-of-control costs that had to be cut did not include the CEO’s half-million dollar salary.
Of course, it is true that unions sometimes make unwise decisions, providing easy fodder for anti-labour pundits. CUPE, for instance, should not have gone on strike over bankable sick days in 2009, creating a summer garbage overflow in Canada’s largest city and souring public opinion on labour. The City of Toronto was at least equally responsible for the work-stoppage, refusing to let sick days be banked just results in employees using them to extend their weekends rather than risk losing them at the end of the month. But the lesson is clear: unions live and die with public opinion and must be willing to suffer small injustices in order to spare the public large ones.
The extent to which labour rights underpin modern civilization is evident in the fact that they have been enshrined in international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees to everyone not only the “right to work” and to “protection from unemployment,” but also to “form and join trade unions” and to be paid wages sufficient for “an existence worthy of human dignity.” Human dignity, indeed, is the indispensable cause and consequence of labour organization. One need not look too far back in Canadian history to find serfdom in Lower Canada, children slaving in factories, and non-landowners excluded from voting. The rights, which we now take for granted, were won by long, bitter, and often bloody labour struggles — a fact which we must not forget. There is still much to be done if full rights are to be won for all workers. These endeavours require solidarity and compromise, not jealousy and intransigence, which, as history shows, are the only things that can prevent people from gaining, and holding, lives worthy of human dignity.