Why we need unions

By Anne McDonagh

By now most of us are aware of the shameful behaviour of Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD), a subsidiary of Caterpillar Inc., a multinational corporation. Until recently it was the employer of about 450 workers in London, Ontario. When it offered its unionized employees a fifty percent cut in wages (from about $35 an hour to about $16), the workers, insulted by the offer, refused it and were locked out by the company. Shortly after, the company announced that it was closing the factory and moving to Indiana, where anti-union laws are in effect.     

      Unfortunately, this outrageous behaviour is not an isolated case. We are all at the mercy of the multinationals, including governments who have ceded a lot of their power and our tax money to these organizations. Unions are the only weapon we have with which to defend ourselves.  

      To destroy the union movement has been a project for some business interests for many years often with the support of governments. However, it is not just corporations and governments that are anti-union. As a society we are ambivalent about—if not outright hostile to—unions. We were very angry about the garbage strike in the summer of 2009, and we tend to be resentful of the better wages union members earn.

      It is clear why corporations and governments are anti-union. They don’t want to spend money on workers. They want maximum profit for minimum cost even if that goal leaves employees working long hours for low wages.

      The argument of “the man or woman on the street” goes something like this,”Why should they get paid so much? They are doing the same kind of work I do and get paid so much more! And often they are getting paid with my tax dollars.” It is understandable that the average Torontonian feels that way. Many ordinary non-union workers are paid poorly and haven’t had a meaningful raise in years, whereas union workers as a rule earn a much better wage than their non-union counterparts.   The mystery is why begrudge a good wage to union members. Why not demand the same benefits from your employer as union members get from their employers?

      What a ridiculous suggestion, you say! Of course it is; one lone worker has no power. But unions have power because they stand together, and standing together, they have achieved a great deal for all of us.

      In fact, society as a whole owes the union movement a great debt of gratitude. Strikes are irritating, but the public needs to remember the gains achieved for everyone by unions over the years. Despite the many inequities in the workplace, all working people today would be much worse off than they are, were it not for unions.

      Unions made possible a middle class. Before unions came into being, in the cities of the Industrial Revolution, there were two classes in society: the rich and the poor, and most people were poor despite the fact that they worked 16 hours a day. They worked in abominable conditions; many industrial accidents killed or maimed them. Employers could do whatever they wanted with their employees. Life was precarious; there was no security of any kind in work or in life, for that matter. After a massive struggle, during the first part of the twentieth century, against the captains of industry and their allies, sometimes resulting in the deaths of unionists, unions finally were legally permitted to exist.

      Ordinary workers then had a voice that had some clout; they were no longer isolated, and exploited, but rather members of a group dedicated to improving the lot of the ordinary worker. The playing field was not as uneven as it had been.

      All workers benefit because unions exist. To some extent union workplaces forced non-union workplaces to match the wages, working conditions and benefits of the union workplaces. At least they are forced to pay more than they would if the unions were not nipping at their heels.

     Thanks to unions we have labour laws around hours of work, overtime pay, health and safety standards in the workplace, a minimum wage, employment insurance, prohibition of child labour and the list goes on. These benefits were negotiated

      Today, the average worker takes most of these benefits for granted, but don’t for a minute imagine that there are not people plotting to weaken or do away with many of these benefits. As the behaviour of EMD illustrates, employers have not become benevolent. No doubt there are employers who treat their workers fairly, but if there were no unions, workplaces would still be unsafe, we would work every waking hour and our children would start working at seven or eight years of age etc.

.     The benefits unions have fought for have meant that workers had the money and time to live satisfying, middle class lives, and it is no coincidence that unions and the middle class way of life are now under threat and that both may well disappear altogether. For the past twenty years, the ordinary middle class worker has seen very little increase in wages. To survive, many people are working two or three jobs.

      There are lots of villains here. Both the provincial and the federal governments have allowed the business sector to set the agenda. They bribe companies to come to their jurisdiction by giving huge tax breaks and cash incentives including to EMD. When the companies turn around and leave, our elected politicians do little more than offer sympathy to the workers.

      To be fair, governments faced with the unemployment of their constituents have had little choice in the matter. Free trade and technology have allowed companies to relocate to the cheapest jurisdiction no matter where it is. Surely those who negotiated these free trade deals had to know that we could never compete with the low paid workforce of Viet Nam or the prison labour of China. Talk of value-added manufacturing so far has been just talk or so it seems.

.     In Ontario the manufacturing sector, which provided most of the well-paid jobs, has been devastated in terms of supplying employment. Some manufacturers have moved their operations, like EMD, to cheaper jurisdictions. At first we were told that only the boring, routine or unskilled jobs would be offshored. Of course, that has not been the case. Many jobs that require technical know-how as well as low-skill jobs are no longer in North America

      Partly because of offshoring but also because of technology, the nature of work has changed. Huge factories are no longer necessary. New procedures like Just in Time inventory control mean many jobs are short term. Many workers are expected to work on contract, with no job security and no benefits. The vast majority of jobs replacing the manufacturing jobs are in the service sector which pay about half the wages that the manufacturing sector had paid and many are part-time.

      Unfortunately, the union movement has not yet been able to deal with this new economic reality. The recent recession has highlighted this systemic change in our economy. There are many challenges ahead, but as long as there are people who believe in fairness in the workplace and a decent life for everyone, there will be a union movement trying to deal with these challenges.

Toronto, Canada