Unions Alive and Well in Sunny Manitoba

February 8, 2011

– Kevin Rebeck, MFL President

I choose to think that Dan Lett was being deliberately provocative when he wrote “Public Sector unions not exactly in a heyday – Governments’ tough stands reflect waning clout” (Free Press February 18, 2011) in order to spark public debate about important issues. But what we debate must be factual.

Among his claims are:
“Unions, public sector ones in particular, have become vilified institutions” and that unions are “less and less popular”. In fact, those who promote statements like this rarely, if ever, provide credible evidence to support these claims. The evidence suggests they are just wrong.

The pollster we work with, Viewpoints Research, regularly surveys western Canadians on their views towards unions and consistently finds 85% agreement with the statement that “employees should have the right to choose to join a union without any interference from the employer.” It finds that 2/3 of the general population agrees that “overall, unions are beneficial for working people.” In 2010, a major national poll, found that 60% of Canadians approve of labour unions while 67% of non-union members agreed that despite inconvenience, strikes are part of democracy.

Statistics Canada reports that union membership in Manitoba has increased somewhat over the past 5 years, from 34% in 2006 to 36% in 2010.

If Dan Lett wants to express a personal opinion about unions, that is fair. But he should not pretend that those personal views are popular, let alone increasingly popular. The facts are not on his side.

In fact, the ongoing cross-Canada union campaign to bring about improvements to the Canada Pension Plan to keep seniors out of poverty when they are no longer able to work is a good example of widespread public support for union work that benefits everyone. According to an October 2010 Environics poll, 78% of Canadians support our efforts and think that our plan to improve CPP is a good idea. This mirrors general public support for many of our initiatives, such as minimum wages, workplace safety and health, pay equity and human rights, to name just a few.

MGEU rejected a proposal from the province for a two-year wage freeze. In fact, MGEU recommended that its members accept that proposal. It was rejected by the union’s members who voted on it, which meant that the union leadership returned to the bargaining table to seek changes to the government’s offer. Voting on a new offer will be taking place through to mid-March (packages have already been sent to MGEU members). The votes will be counted on March 11. If it is again rejected the union will hold a strike vote.

Is there ever a good time to freeze wages? In fact, there are many examples of union members agreeing to wage freezes as a result of good-faith bargaining. This is far different from the many examples of imposed wage freezes through a suspension of fundamental bargaining rights – rights that have been recognized by the United Nation’s International Labour Organization for decades. These ILO protocols recognizing workers’ rights have been endorsed by most countries in the world, including Canada. The point is the proper way to secure a provision such as a wage freeze is through the good-faith bargaining of a total contract package that is acceptable to the employees.

It’s possible the eight-hour workday, 40-hour work week, premium pay, paid holidays, maternity leave and vacation pay would have become staples in the life of the western worker without the dogged lobbying of labour unions. In fact, there is no evidence to support this statement. All of these “staples” came about as the result of lengthy struggles by unionized workers, too often involving bitter strikes. These “staples” are drenched by the sweat and blood of committed trade unionists and were extended to the non-union workforce by employers who wanted to keep their workplaces free of unions, supported by business-sponsored governments eager to slow down the growth of the trade union movement.

To suggest these provisions would have become a common place feature in our workplaces without the effort, determination and sacrifices of the men and women of the union movement is both insulting and simply not true.