Unions have a long, proud history of fighting for workers’ rights

By Colin Matthew

Nine union members standing outside of the Central East Correctional Facility in Lindsay ON
Nine OPSEU members who work at the Central East Correctional Centre. Pictured are S. Dunn, M. Reade, R. Gilchrist, J. Guthrie, M. Sedgwick, S. Nelson, B. Bisso, K. Semple, and D. Troost. Photo: John Maclennan.

Few topics in politics are as divisive, even in polite company, as unionization. While Canadian courts have consistently upheld, and on more than a few occasions greatly expanded the rights of unions, affinity for organized labour has ebbed and flowed since the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital said, “the man [person] who sells labour should, in selling it, be on an equality with the man [person] who buys it” in 1889.

The Royal Commission recognized the inherent power imbalance of industrial capitalism even as industrialization was creating an explosion in the size of the Canadian working class.
As workers exercised their rights to join unions and the labour movement took shape, including spawning the Canadian Labour Congress in 1956, victories came that included shorter work weeks, employment insurance, health and safety regulation and maternity and parental benefits among many others.

Many of these gains were achieved by workers exercising their right to strike, including a historic 99-day strike by the United Auto Workers in 1945 that led to paid vacation, as well as mandatory dues collection that came to be called the Rand Formula after the Supreme Court judge who imposed the terms. In part, the Rand Formula recognizes that all workers, whether union members or not, benefit from the gains unions achieve.

While many of the benefits unions attained during this heyday now extend to all workers, we have seen workers’ rights eroded significantly in recent years, particularly under the Doug Ford government, including the elimination of two paid sick days established by the previous Liberal government, and scrapping of a scheduled increase in the minimum wage.

These erosions were facilitated by a drop in unionization that began markedly in 1981 and were felt around the world both in specific labour fights, including in Britain with Margaret Thatcher breaking the Welsh miners, in the U.S. with Ronald Reagan and the air traffic controllers and in Canada with Brian Mulroney going to war with the Public Service Alliance of Canada. This was in addition to more sweeping legislative changes that greatly expanded the power of corporations while undermining the rights of labour, including Mulroney signing the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This process has accelerated as large corporations globalized under business-friendly free trade policies seeking low taxes, lax regulation and cheap, plentiful labour leading to record corporate profits and an unprecedented concentration of wealth. In short, the equality the Royal Commission spoke of 132 years ago was never actually achieved and has gotten significantly worse over the course of the last few decades.

In 2015, a trio of landmark cases decided by the Supreme Court of Canada expanded the rights of unions, reinforcing the rights of workers to organize and to collectively bargain, and stating for the first time that the right to strike was constitutionally guaranteed. Following these rulings, there were relatively fewer strikes in Canada.

Despite these ongoing legal protections for unions, we have seen large corporations actively seeking to undermine unions in the eyes of their workers. Famously, Walmart has closed stores where workers vote to unionize, including one in Jonquière, Quebec. Lowe’s Canada has hired staff with particular expertise in “union avoidance” and Foodora, a gig-economy food delivery service, chose to leave Canada rather than allow a union to form despite nearly 90 per cent of workers voting yes to unionization.

Large employers are so anxious to protect record corporate profits that union avoidance has become a particular specialty in law. One law firm claims that communication is the greatest tool to keep unions out of workplaces, asserting that it is often perception and not reality that leads workers to unionize. The facts tell a different story, however.

All Canadians benefit from ongoing advocacy by organized labour including a strong association with the United Way and the Canadian Labour Congress fighting for universal pharmacare, ending workplace discrimination and combatting climate change.

Locally, Lindsay has had a long history of unionism, from its infancy with machinists before the 1919 General Strike in Winnipeg through the manufacturing boom with companies like Union Carbide and others to Armada Toolworks in the present. This history has been drastically affected by globalization and free trade, including the closure of the Fleetwood manufacturing plant in 2007.

Today, local unions skew towards public sector workers including CUPE workers at the city, school board and hospital; OPSEU (which is the Ontario Public Service Employees Union), and the education unions, but private sector unions including the IBEW, UFCW and UNIFOR represent workers and maintain an important presence.

The Lindsay and District Labour Council provides an advocacy body and an organizing force for unions and workers. It marks Labour Day with large public picnics and the Day of Mourning on April 28 for killed and injured workers.

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