To: Party leaders and Members of Parliament

The Austerity Agenda's Attack on Unions is an Attack on Equality

Unions aren't just "the people who brought you the weekend."1 They are the main way people can work for their own economic interest, together. Unions are the main engine of economic equality.2 A recent report noted that "unions tend to lift up the lower economic levels, spread out and expand the middle levels, and reduce the concentration of wealth at the top."3 Unions will also be a crucial player in the transition to an economy based on renewable energy and sustainable production.4

Corporate greed hurts us all: Air Canada workers were legislated back to work.

For precisely these reasons, the austerity agenda has unions in the crosshairs. Limiting collective action makes it easier for corporations to grab additional profits at the expense of the people who did the work. When workers are individuals have no collective voice, it's easier to keep wages low while rising profits line the bank accounts of the ultra-rich.

Canada's Conservative government has made deep cuts to the public service, eliminating 37,000 jobs since they took power.6 Public service workers have one of the highest rates of unionization in Canada – over 70%.7 Some of the largest cuts have been in areas affecting environment, food safety and tax collection, and their attempt to cut tens of thousands of letter carrier jobs by eliminating home delivery of mail is ongoing. (The most recent round of cuts helped pay for income-splitting, a costly measure that mostly benefits the wealthy.5)

The Harper government has loosed a salvo of regulations aimed at weakening unions and the workers they represent. In 2013 they removed public sector workers' right to refuse unsafe work and reduced the number of worksite safety inspections.8 In 2014, they changed laws to make it harder to establish unions and easier to decertify them.9 Another measure gives the government the ability to refuse arbitration, which is how most public sector disputes are handled.10 Conservatives also passed a bill to force unions to reveal their internal workings publicly.11

By 2013, the government used "back to work" legislation six times, denying employees at Air Canada, Canada Post and CP Rail the right to strike or bargain with their employer. When employers know that workers will be punished for striking, they use it to their advantage. The Conservatives have been criticized for abusing the legislation, which is intended to protect public safety.12

Why this matters:

The age of austerity has seen a major push to remove the economy from the list of things we are allowed to make decisions about democratically. Since Margaret Thatcher proclaimed that "there is no alternative," countries the world over have been instructed by central bankers and other countries how to arrange their affairs.13

Whether it's the IMF or the European Central bank has taken economic decisionmaking away from democratic governments, leading to profound crises in Greece and Argentina, among other countries. The domination of government by corporate lobbyists hell bent on deregulation caused the US economic crisis in 2008.14 In Canada, "free trade" agreements – which are better termed corporate rights deals15 – have been the preferred method of taking economic decisionmaking out of the hands of the people.

In this climate, unions are more than a driver of equality. They are a democratic force that can shape economic decisions every day. They are one of the few obstacles to runaway corporate power, and they will play a key role when we as a society decide to transition to an economy that is ecologically sustainable, democratic and equal. Unions are also the driving force for the implementation of equal pay for women – which is also being attacked by the austerity agenda.

Specific unions can leave much to be desired. But union are, in almost all cases, democratically run. That means that whatever they are doing now, they can do it better – or change course – if their members get organized.

For these reasons, resisting the attack on unions and working to strengthen them from the shop floor on up is everyone's business.

  1. "Unions are really the only organized line of defence against the broad right-wing assault on social programs and government regulations" –Linda McQuaig, 2013
  2. "Unionization and minimum wages are usually thought to reduce inequality by helping equalize the distribution of wages, and economic research confirms this." IMF, 2015
  3. "[U]nions also play a deeper role in enhancing the level of democracy, inclusion and participation in society as a whole." –CCPA, 2014
  4. The Green Economy Network, made up of unions and environmental groups, has launched a campaign for one million climate jobs, but has yet to provide it with significant organizing resources. See: Green Economy Network, 2015
  5. "Over all, the study shows that 90 per cent of families would get no benefit, either because they have no children under 18, are single-parent households or because the two working spouses are in the same tax bracket." –Globe and Mail, 2014
  6. "Canada's Conservative government has wiped nearly 37,000 people off the federal payroll and reduced key services for Canada's veterans and the unemployed and budgets for food safety in the 'rush' to pay for its promised tax cuts, according to a new report." Postmedia News, 2014
  7. "Union density is registering a decline in almost every country due to drastic changes in labour legislation and the right-wing agenda that steers most Western governments." UFCW, 2011
  8. "'We have never encountered this level of animosity and ill will from the government before,' Jackson said in an interview. "They want to get rid of us and to strip away things we have maintained for decades.'" –The Tyee, 2013
  9. "Senators on the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee heard no evidence to prove the bill was necessary. The Committee also discovered errors in the Bill, yet voted against the necessary changes to fix it." –PSAC, 2014
    "Bill C-525... only applies to a minority of workers in Canada, those who are federally regulated." –, 2014
  10. "Stephen Harper has a tried and true formula to placate his political base: When in trouble, attack either sex offenders or unions. This month, it was Canada's federal public sector unions who drew the short straw." –Thomas Walkom
  11. "The competitive advantaged gained by Merit Canada is like a game of poker in which the unions are forced to play with their cards dealt face up." –Phil Fleming, 2013; see also Bill Daniels, 2014
  12. "[T]he [Air Canada] decision — nominally made by Labour Minister Lisa Raitt — is a clear abuse of the law. Raitt took advantage of a section in the Canada Labour Code designed 'to prevent an immediate and serious danger to the safety and health of the public.'" –Thomas Walkom, 2012. See also: Financial Post, 2012
    "Labour Minister Lisa Raitt moved Wednesday to be in a position to pass back-to-work legislation if the strike continues at Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd." –Toronto Star, 2012
    "The Harper government introduced back-to-work-legislation Monday to end the Canada Post labour dispute and warned it is prepared to limit debate in Parliament to get the bill passed into law as early as this week." –Postmedia News, 2011
  13. "Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) have been imposed to ensure debt repayment and economic restructuring. But the way it has happened has required poor countries to reduce spending on things like health, education and development, while debt repayment and other economic policies have been made the priority." –Global Issues, 2013
  14. "[T]he financial industry fought, and defeated, measures that might have curbed some of the reckless lending practices that many think played a pivotal role in igniting the crisis" –Vox, 2011
  15. "From the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement of 1988, through NAFTA, the WTO and Canada's many Foreign Investment Protection Agreements, to today's bilateral, European Union and Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, these deals enrich multinational corporations at the expense of the vast majority of people and the planet." –Council of Canadians, 2015

Send a message:

Unions are the best tool we have to ensure that wealth is shared with those who create it. They reduce inequality, fight for pay equity, and will play a key role in the transition to renewable energy.

We must reverse the reckless cuts to the public service, end the use of back to work legislation, and make is easier – not harder – to organize in the workplace.