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Do unions deserve their due?



Print Edition: September 17, 2014

Image:  Kheel Center/ flickr

Image: Kheel Center/ flickr

The whole country reaps the benefits

If you’ve driven past any elementary schools in the past months, you’ve probably seen them: the tired-eyed teachers standing in the September heat, waving union signs and hoping for a honk or a wave as you drive past.

It’s easy to roll your eyes, flip them the finger, and drive on, cursing the unions for keeping your kids out of school for so long. But while unions are receiving a lot of bad press over the recent teachers’ strike, it’s important we realize what they have done for us — and why we need them now more than ever.

Since the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada in 1883 began the fight for workers’ rights, labour unions have fought an extraordinary battle. Even if you don’t have a unionized job, you can thank unions for creating the basic standard of workers’ rights we all enjoy, including maternity leave, health benefits, safe working conditions, and equal hiring practices.

But those struggles are all in the past, you might argue. This is the 21st century; we have a higher standard for human rights now. We’ve won the battle against Dickensian mills and dangerous mines staffed by pale, coughing children. We’ve outgrown the need for unions — haven’t we?

Sadly, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. As the widening wealth gap sets Generation Y up for failure across the western world, it’s becoming clear that our generation needs unions as much as our grandparents ever did.

The key lies in the middle class. It’s well-documented that a country does best when there is the least variance between the rich and the poor. The richer the rich and the poorer the poor, the more social problems tend to afflict the society: mental illness, infant mortality, illiteracy, sickness, violent crime, and so on.

A healthy country requires a healthy middle class, where most of the population enjoys relative economic equality — and unions are essential for this. By providing job security and protecting workers’ basic rights, unions can develop and sustain that middle class. They prevent corporations, political parties, and employers from exploiting workers, violating human rights, and undoing the accomplishments of the last century and a half.

The media has often characterized unions as being led by wicked “union bosses” who cackle as they rake in the bucks scraped from your paycheque each week. Yeah, it’s disappointing that your union will take a few dollars out of your paycheque each week —  but it’s literally a small price to pay for the stability and prosperity that unionized labour can bring to a country.

And since unions are funded entirely by their members, they don’t owe loyalty to anyone but their members. If you work for one, you have a powerful ally that will protect and support you in the case of workplace harassment, abuse, and exploitation. Unions don’t protect the lazy, as some argue — they protect everyone.

Even if you’ve never belonged to a union in your life, you still benefit from their existence. The extra stability created by unions helps stimulate the economy; well-paid workers are more likely to spend more, invest more, and start their own businesses. They also contribute more taxes, which then to go improving services like education, healthcare, roads, and law enforcement, improving the entire community.

For the last fourteen decades Canada has enjoyed a broad middle class, thanks in large part to the existence of unions; if you’re reading this, especially if you’re a university student, it’s statistically likely that you come from that economic background.

But that middle class is rapidly shrinking. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada’s 100 highest-paid CEOs make 171 times more than the average Canadian worker — and 194 times the average Canadian woman. The poor are becoming extraordinarily poor. The rich are becoming extraordinarily rich. And the gap between them is becoming immense as the middle class that most of us grew up in steadily shrinks.

University students in particular should be aware of the importance of labour unions, given the economic difficulty our generation is struggling with.

“I now have students who are coming out of university with $30,000 in debt, and they can’t find anything except crummy service jobs,” University of Toronto labour history professor Laurel McDowell told CBC News. “They’re in non-standards jobs, they’ve got no benefits, they’ve got long workdays, they’ve got really bad conditions, and I think, this is progress?

“We’re at a real turning point. We’ve got to decide what kind of workforce and what kind of society we’re going to have.”

I know what kind of society I would like to have. That’s why I’m not going to vote for Christy Clark, or anyone else who tries to tell me that labour unions are greedy gangs who protect the lazy.

The choice is clear to me — I would take a union job any day, where I know my voice will be heard, my human rights defended, and my country’s economic stability protected.


Unions perpetuate apathy and a false sense of equality

When unions started in North America, their purpose was to protect employees against the poor workplace standards and injustices. However, over time unions have lost sight of their function. What was originally created to protect the employee has slowly started on a trajectory of developing either a narrowly defined work ethic or an apathetic and unsatisfied mindset in workers.

In a union, good work ethic does not hold job security on its own: hard work is not what drives promotions, pay raises, and positive employee-employer relationships. As such, union workers can lose that incentive to work harder.

Furthermore, the structure of a union often protects employees who may need to be let go. After a short probation period (usually around three months), an employee’s job is protected, making it almost impossible for them to be removed from their position. Also, if an employee does something worth reporting, it often gets overlooked due to the large amount of paperwork behind filing a complaint. Supervisors can’t be bothered with the hassle. Workers know and are told what is expected of them, but there are few consequences when expectations are not met.

Union dues can get extremely out of hand as well. Employees have an average amount of their earnings deducted from each paycheque, which is contributed to a common fund.  The problem is, once employed by a union, employees have no say in whether they want to pay these dues or not, or where the money actually goes. If a worker disagrees with the union’s use of dues, or is not given adequate information on their use, he or she is powerless to influence the decision. Many of the fees go toward running the union (admin fees, legal fees, training, etc.). It appears the dues paid metaphorically go towards “feeding the beast” so it can fight.

Unions place their emphasis on equality: a democratic way in the workforce that supplies each employee with equal rights. However, their attempt to equal the playing field creates a false equal world for workers. Take a sports team: the better skilled and equipped players win the game. Or look at the competitiveness of the job market. It’s the go-getters who typically gain higher status or have access to better resources. This reality, juxtaposed with the concept that working in an union entitles a worker to equal rights, produces an idealistic mentality rather than a realistic one. Thinking our world is an equal place is an incorrect mindset. As much as we’d all love it to be, it’s not and never will be.

Furthermore, the voice of the union contradicts a person’s sense of their individual “human right.” Your voice ends up lumped with the mass voice of the union. It is the union that speaks, not the individual. This takes away from the individual’s sense of responsibility.

Many of the well-known union jobs such as nurses or teachers have superior working conditions compared to others in the labour force — and to look at the conditions in developing countries wouldn’t be a fair comparison. We live in a country that equips us with resources we not only need, but also want and desire. These privileges are far above many other regions of the world. We are a privileged nation. But why is there always the need to receive more? Because people love to exercise their rights to receive all these privileges. It seems unfair in the minds of many, if some receive more than others. But the fight for privileges for necessity is lost.

Unions have formed together to protect the rights and privileges of citizens who, in today’s society, have it pretty well.

I worry that people forget how good they have it compared to what once was. It’s the classic case of a continual quest for fulfilment and the consumerist mentality of wanting more. But in the end this mindset does not only apply to those who work in a union. It applies to us all.



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