Unions still matter

Ella Henry - From College Hill to Parliament Hill (Tom Bateman/AQ)

The last year has been full of strikes and lockouts – postal workers, Acadian Lines workers, various unions at Air Canada, transit workers in Halifax, workers at Caterpillar locomotive plant in London, Ont. and the workers at the Fredericton Airport, to name a few.

We are likely entering an era where labour disruptions are becoming more and more common, so now is a good time to talk about why unions still matter.

I’ve often heard the argument that unions might have been useful back when weekends weren’t taken for granted and a 12-hour work day was the norm. Or maybe unions could be useful in situations where workers are incredibly oppressed – like sweatshops – but most workplaces these days don’t need unions.

Eight-hour work days, weekends off, benefits, fair wages, pensions and workplace safety weren’t created because employers were in a generous mood. Unions fought for and won many of the working conditions we now take for granted.

But here’s the problem: these hard-won standards that played a major part in the increased standard of living of the majority of the people in Canada can’t actually be taken for granted anymore.

More and more people are working well over 40 hours a week – either at a nine-to-five job that is, in practice, a constant job, or working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Increasingly, employers are trying to reduce wages, cut benefits, and eliminate job security.

Working conditions aren’t improving, and in many cases are getting worse for non-unionized workers. And employers are trying to do the same thing to unionized workers too.

When working conditions and wages get worse for unionized workers, the standards for all workers fall with them.

When a company like Caterpillar reports record high annual profits and then demands that its workers take a 50 per cent wage cut, it’s not about keeping business competitive.

The increasingly frequent attacks on unions are about increasing profits that go to a small minority of people at the expense of the standard of living for most people.

As students, many of us are working part-time jobs – sometimes so many part-time jobs we may as well be working full-time.

We’re preparing to enter a workforce where there are very few positions that offer any job security.

Our generation is being told times are tough, and we should be happy to get a job at all.

But times aren’t tough for everyone. Increased unemployment and decreasing wages don’t make sense alongside record profits.

So, if we want a standard of living similar to what our parents had, we’re going to have to fight for it – and forming unions within our workplaces is one of the best chances we have.