Do you enjoy your holidays? Nice to have a paid break, isn’t it? Have you ever taken a minute though, to think about why and how you have holidays? Or if you have to work a holiday, why you get paid extra for it?
The reason is unions. Holidays are one of those worker’s rights that were hard fought for so long ago, that we don’ t even think about it anymore. Holidays, overtime, regulated hours of work, safety measures, pensions, disability – those are all things that many of us now take for granted, but not one of those benefits came voluntarily from any company or industry.
And they don’t only benefit union members, they benefit all of society. For instance if you are working at your local convenience store, even though you aren’t unionized, they can’t force you to work seven days a week, or have you do anything that is unsafe. Because at some point in time, a union fought for these rights, and eventually they became the law of the land.
So why is it that unions have fallen out of public favour? Union membership is declining, and the attitude of many is that while unions may have once served a purpose because workers were being exploited, that is no longer the case. So, they conclude, unions are no longer relevant. The argument boils down to “what have you done for me lately?”
The research though – and there is a great deal of it – reveals why unions are just as important now as they were at the turn of the last century.
Somewhat in Canada, but particularly in the U.S., wealth distribution has gotten way out of line. Consider than from 1978 to 2011, the wage of the average private sector worker increased less than six per cent, but in that same timeframe, the salary of the average CEO increased by well over 700 per cent. In other words, virtually all economic gains have been going to the wealthy. The middle class is shrinking, and, this goes hand-in-hand with the demise of unions.
The point is that the path to the middle class has always been organized labour, and with fewer unions and fewer unionized employees, the gap between the “have” and the “have not’s” is increasing.
And it’s about more than just fewer unionized people making union wages. Both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development say that access to broadly based collective bargaining is the only way to build a healthy middle class in a country.
The middle class hasn’t declined as much here as it has in the United States, and that is because we have a larger percentage of unionized workers. But even in the U.S. you can see an interesting comparison in that states with a greater percentage of union members have higher minimum wages, a greater percentage of residents covered by health insurance, stronger social safety nets and a more progressive tax code where the rich pay something more approaching their fair share. In other words, when there is a union, all citizens benefit.
Let’s jump back to Canada for an example. In Canada, like in the United States, employees in the service industries have started to join unions in ever increasing numbers. The reason is that unlike years ago, the people working in the service industries, like fast food, are no longer just students en route to something better; they are more and more the middle aged trying to support a family or older people who can’t afford to retire.
As an example look at the hotel industry in Toronto and in Alberta. In Toronto, where 75 per cent of the hotels are unionized, the workforce is stable, and the pay is described as good enough to raise a family on. The effect has been that even the non-union hotels have to pay higher wages to stay competitive. By comparison, in Alberta, where unions have not gotten a foothold in the hotel industry, the picture is low wages, no benefits, and higher turnover.
Unionization of the hotel industry will continue, but of course it is only one of several battlegrounds. Whether it is the service industry, employers like Wal-Mart or closer to home, Maritime Broadcasting Corporation, as long as employees aren’t afforded a decent wage and aren’t treated with respect, there will be a purpose for unions. Until we realize pay equity and sufficient pensions for all, unions will continue to be relevant.
In short, unions have proven to be good for society. It was true a hundred years ago, and it remains true today.