"Oh, unions were important back in the Depression, I guess, but now they have too much power, and they are out of sync with the way the modern economy works."
Reader, if I had a dollar for every time I heard a variant of that boneheaded statement, I'd never have to work again. It is usually delivered in tones of oily, orotund complacency, typically by highly paid talk radio pundits but far too often by ordinary people who ought to know better. The popularity of this and other anti-labour slogans these days is a tribute to the power of a well financed, decades-long propaganda campaign.
It even has a surface air of plausibility. Times change, after all, and even valuable social inventions like the trade union might go out of date. It is sometimes paired with sullen talk about how public sector unions are "holding the taxpayer hostage" or gaining "gold plated pensions" for civil servants. But a little thought reveals that these virulent anti-union notions are both false and dangerous to our civic well being. Vancouver, like the rest of Canada, owes much to the union movement, and it needs to see that movement grow and develop.
A Vancouver with no unions, or with unions further weakened would be a meaner, less fair city for us all, whether we belong to a union ourselves or not. Social science research suggests that greater income equality, one of the great products of a strong union movement, can have immense impacts on health and well-being right across the class spectrum. Perhaps counter intuitively, but demonstrably, unions are good for us all, even in some ways for the business class, although no one should hold their breath waiting for the Fraser Institute or the increasingly anti-union mainstream press to recognize that fact.
Even though Labour Day was established as a mild-mannered competitor for May Day which has associations with labour radicalism, the end-of-summer holiday is a good time to reflect on what we all owe to those who built an international workers movement, and what we owe to the future in terms of protecting and extending the hard won gains that unions have created for us all.
Without the efforts of organized labour, Canadian workers would have to do without Medicare, employment standards legislation, health and safety enforcement, minimum wages and limits on child labour. We wouldn't have a five-day work week, or a few statutory holidays each year to rest and hang out with our families. Although some of the gains won during a century of labour struggle have been rolled back, notably for British Columbians during the dreary Liberal decade, they were gains nonetheless and deserve celebration, protection, and, where weakened, restoration.
Unions have had a huge (although still unfinished) impact on gender inequality, doing much to bring up women's unfairly suppressed wages and implement policies to fight violence against women and harassment at the workplace and on our streets. A weakened union movement would damage those gains.
As demonstrated in Wilkinson and Pickett's brilliant study The Spirit Level, societies like the U.S. and the U.K., where unions have been weakened and income disparities increased, all suffer from higher levels of infant mortality, mental illness, obesity and many other indicators of social malaise. In contrast, societies that feature stronger union movements, a robust social democratic social safety net and less economic inequality score better than free enterprise-besotted countries on the same measures of well being.
Even the rich in more equal societies do better than their classmates from more dog-eat-dog countries. Canada regularly scores in the middle on these measures- better than the U.S. but not so healthy or well as Nordic social democracies. Canadians need to join and support trade unions in greater numbers if we don't want our country to look more and more like the worst of the U.S. experience.
If you are enjoying a long weekend with the people you love this Labour Day, take a moment to think about the years of struggle it took to establish the partial and still imperfect wage, safety, fairness and dignity protections provided by organized labour. Even better, take your family with you and attend the B.C. Federation of Labour's Labour Day Picnic on Sept. 3 at Trout Lake. Happy Labour Day.
Tom Sandborn welcomes feedback and story tips at email@example.com
(Allen Garr is on vacation.)