Ed Broadbent responds to the attack on workers and their unions

July 13, 2012

In a thoughtful opinion piece published yesterday at IPolitics.ca former NDP Leader Ed Broadbent responds to the growing attack on workers and their unions:

Right-wing commentators like to claim that unions undermine good economic performance. But respected organizations such as the OECD, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have shown this isn’t so. They have recognized that unions promote more equitable societies, and that countries with strong unions have less extremes of rich and poor, stronger public services and social safety nets, without adversely affecting good economic performance.

So why are Conservatives in Ottawa and the provinces disturbingly adopting the anti-union rhetoric of the American right?

The kinds of changes found in Bill C-377 and Tim Hudak’s White Paper on Labour Markets are about limiting the impact of unions outside the workplace and restricting freedom of speech.

Here in Canada, unions have been and remain essential to our democracy.

In 1976, Canada ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which recognize the right to a union. We legally committed ourselves to recognize both the right to a union and the right to bargain collectively – just as important as other fundamental human rights.

These international treaties affirm that unions are an important means for workers to have democratic checks on power.

In democratic societies, there are two principal arenas of non-violent conflict over power: the state and the workplace. Just as political democracy entails the right to select or reject one’s representatives and enables us to pursue, share and exercise power in the real world of free citizens, democracy in the workplace also requires that workers have their own representatives and some real power.

This check on power is what Canada’s Supreme Court decision in 2006 was all about. Chief Justice Beverley McLaughlin wrote in her decision that unions’ collective bargaining power bring “dignity, liberty and autonomy” to working people.

In the United States today, unions represent just one in eight workers and less than 7 per cent of private sector workers. The decline of unions since Reagan is closely associated with the decline of middle class jobs, the rise of extreme income inequality, and growing economic insecurity and poverty.

The U.S. states with weak unions have lower average wages – $1,500 less per year – and greater inequality than the country as a whole. Meanwhile, U.S. states with relatively strong unions such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Iowa boast unemployment rates of 6 per cent or less and superior social outcomes.

We must expose recent attacks on the labour movement for what they really are: a coordinated assault on the existing democratic rights of unions.

Canada’s stronger unions have helped ensure we have less extremes than in the U.S. (falling wages tend to be limited to the middle-class) and have certainly not undermined our economic performance, comparatively. Even hard-hit Ontario (which has the second lowest unionization rate in Canada after Alberta) has an unemployment rate significantly below the U.S. average.

Don’t believe those politicians and pundits who say unions threaten prosperity. The effort to emasculate unions is about silencing the voice of Canadian workers, and at risk are our hard-won rights – both inside and outside the workplace.