Wealthy and powerful interests benefit from low unionization rates
My entire working life has been in unionized environments. As a result, I have a healthy pension plan, just about all my teeth, affordable hearing aids and free prescriptions. And, during this span, job security when contracts or projects ended.
I knew I benefited from unions; when graduate student Jessica Muller and I undertook a careful examination of the health effects of unionization, we confirmed this. Nations with greater union membership have fewer low-waged workers and healthier citizens. Within nations, people in jurisdictions with greater unionization have better health, and at the individual level, unionized workers have higher wages, more benefits and better health outcomes than the non-unionized.
Why, considering these benefits, does Canada have one of the lowest rates of unionization and collective agreement coverage (31 per cent), with unionization rates especially low in the private sector at 16 per cent? Who benefits from these low unionization rates? Why do Canadians go along with this? My answers relate to unionization in the private sector, specifically, as rates are high (76 per cent) in the public sector.
Unionization rates are low because provincial and territorial governments made it difficult to organize private workplaces. Until 1977, workplaces in Canada could be organized by having a majority of workers sign a card indicating a wish for a union — a process called card-check authorization. Since then, five provinces have removed this process in favour of an election: Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Saskatchewan, constituting 70 per cent of the national workforce. This shift allows employers to mobilize opposition to unionization through a range of tactics — some of them questionable — making it unlikely that certification of a union will occur.
Corporations and companies benefit from low unionization rates because it increases profits. Paying lower wages and providing fewer benefits increases dividends for company shareholders. Not surprisingly, these corporations and companies lobby governments to maintain barriers to unionization. The profound growth of income inequality in Canada between the wealthy and others — with its related adverse health effects — occurs in lockstep with declining unionization rates.
Canadian citizens go along because they are subjected to a process identified by scholar Antonio Gramsci, by which the ideas and values of the wealthy and powerful are imposed upon and accepted by those being dominated. In this case, the accepted belief is that somehow unions are bad and to be avoided. This is not simply a result of the wealthy and powerful doing this messaging. It is reinforced by the education system, the mainstream media, governing authorities and corporations and companies themselves.
Where to begin? First, unions and their benefits must become topics of public conversation. The educational system and mainstream media by and large avoid these issues. There has been increasing coverage of attempts to unionize gig workers but these reports neglect the benefits unionization would have for the great majority of Canadian workers and their families. Second, the public needs to demand authorities make the process of unionization made easier.
This is where advocacy groups concerned with social issues related to income, such as poverty or housing, and political parties have a role. These groups would come together to support easier unionization of workplaces. And if political parties in power do not make it easier to unionize workplaces, they would be voted out of office.
Third, Canadians, once they experience the benefits of unionization, will then recognize and resist other processes of domination by wealthy and powerful interests in other public policy areas, like affordable housing, access to health care and prescriptions, and secure employment.
— Dr. Dennis Raphael is a professor of Health Policy and Management at York University in Toronto.