Monday, September 7, 2015

Labour Day

Today, there will be the obligatory articles buried in the press about Labour Day, and the labour movement and workers will take the day off to celebrate role of workers in our society. But what do we have to celebrate? 

Union membership is on the decline and the future of unions is not, in my mind, bright. Somewhere in the 1980's we lost the idea that working people were better off with a union. The disconnect between workers rights and union membership and strength were lost, I think by design and by a conservative push and control of mainstream media.  But perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel, at least in Canada. Our Supreme Court of ruling in January of 2015, said that the right to strike is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

The ability of workers to go on strike is a fundamental part of collective bargaining; a corner stone of our free and democratic society. It is extremely important to have the highest court in our country recognize this as a right of all workers, private and public sector alike,” said Paul Moist, national president of CUPE. “No union ever wants a strike, but without the right to strike, employers have an unfair advantage. This decision secures a balance between workers and employers in negotiations.

This decision stems from Saskatchewan labour legislation passed in 2008 - the Public Service Essential Services Act which put unjust limits on which public sector workers could go on strike in the province. The Supreme Court struck down the law because it violated Saskatchewan workers’ Charter right to freedom of association.  

The decision affirms that all workers, in all provinces, have the constitutional right to strike or to have another way to resolve labour disputes if their work is essential to health, safety or security. Earlier this month, in the RCMP case, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of Canadian workers to form and join unions.

Some highlights from this decision are:
The right to strike is essential to realizing these values through a collective bargaining process because it permits workers to withdraw their labour in concert when collective bargaining reaches an impasse. Through a strike, workers come together to participate directly in the process of determining their wages, working conditions and the rules that will govern their working lives. The ability to strike thereby allows workers, through collective action, to refuse to work under imposed terms and conditions. This collective action at the moment of impasse is an affirmation of the dignity and autonomy of employees in their working lives.

The right to strike also promotes equality in the bargaining process. This Court has long recognized the deep inequalities that structure the relationship between employers and employees, and the vulnerability of employees in this context. While strike activity itself does not guarantee that a labour dispute will be resolved in any particular manner, or that it will be resolved at all, it is the possibility of a strike which enables workers to negotiate their employment terms on a more equal footing.

The right to strike, however, is not a creature just of the Wagner model. Most labour relations models include it because the ability to collectively withdraw services for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of employment — in other words, to strike — is an essential component of the process through which workers pursue collective workplace goals.

This historical, international, and jurisprudential landscape suggests compellingly that a meaningful process of collective bargaining requires the ability of employees to participate in the collective withdrawal of services for the purpose of pursuing the terms and conditions of their employment through a collective agreement. The ability to engage in the collective withdrawal of services in the process of the negotiation of a collective agreement is, and has historically been, the irreducible minimum of the freedom to associate in Canadian labour relations.

The Canadian trade union movement grew out of the industrialization of the economy at the end of the 19th Century. At that time, unions were predominately a male domain and remained so until the 1960s. Today, a union member is slightly more likely to be a woman, and working in an office, school or hospital, while factory workers, miners and other blue collar trades have seen their union membership fall over the past quarter century.

The decline in the unionisation rate is not a recent phenomenon. In Canada, most of the decline took place in the 1980s and 1990s. Since Statistics Canada began measuring unionisation through household surveys, the rate of unionisation has fallen from 37.6% in 1981 to 28.8% in 2014.

The first labour organizations in Canada appeared in the early 19th century, but their growth and development really occurred in the early decades of the 20th century. During most of the 19th century labour unions were local, sporadic and short-lived. Moreover they were illegal, prohibited by strict anti-combines legislation, in view of the basic principle of the freedom of commerce and competition. From l872 they were allowed to exist by the Trade Unions Act, passed that year by the federal government. But union activities, such as demonstrations and strikes, were controversial until the 20th century.

Many types of organization existed in the 19th century: by trade, by industry, by region, by ideology. Survival was long to come. Total number of union members was erratic, depending mainly on the level of economic activity. At the turn of the century, it was less than 100 000 corresponding to less than 10% of the labour force.

The major growth of labour organization came only in the 1940s as a result of the industrial development spurred by the war industries and the postwar boom, and from new legislation (1944) permitting union certification and forcing employers to accept collective bargaining with employee representatives. Thus, during the 1940s, membership in labour organizations more than doubled, from less than 400 000 to 1 million, and the level of unionization rose from 20% to 30%.

The degree of unionization reached 34% in 1954, but returned to 30% in the late 1950s. In the 1960s efforts were made to tap new sources of members, eg, office workers and some professional employees. In the late 1960s all Canadian jurisdictions (except Saskatchewan, which had done so in 1944) granted public-sector employees the right to organize and bargain collectively. The level of unionization consequently rose to 40% of Canadian nonagricultural paid workers in 1983. Since then it has declined slightly (37.6% in 1987) and now remains relatively stable around 35%.

Without Unions we would not have the rights we have today in the workplace, so my hope is that the shift in attitude seen by the Supreme Court, will help all workers realize that they need to join a union.

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