The Vital Role of Trade Unions

Labour Demonstration against wage controls, Parliament Hill, 1942. Image: Library and Archives Canada/flickr

As we approach Canada’s 150th anniversary, our country’s political, economic, and social institutions — and their leaders during the past century-and-a-half — will be thanked and honoured.

There is one institution, however, that is being overlooked: the labour movement. Acknowledgement of the substantial contribution trade unions have made to Canada’s development and progress is nowhere to be seen.

This lack of recognition is understandable. Considering the mainstream media’s invariably negative depiction of unions, the notion that they have been social and economic builders rather than strike-happy wreckers draws disdain and derision.

Given a word-association test, the response of most Canadians¬† to the word “union” would be “strikes.”

How else could they be expected to react? The only time they hear about unions in the media is when their members are walking the picket lines. The automatic assumption is that all unions ever do is go on strike.

In fact, the average union member is on the job 96.4 per cent of their working life. Since unions negotiate 97 out of every 100 collective agreements at the bargaining table, a strike is an exceptional event.

If unions received even one-tenth as much publicity for helping enhance our society as they get for the occasional strike to which recalcitrant employers force them to resort, their public profile might reflect something closer to reality.

As someone who has worked for and with labour organizations for more than 40 years — and written a column on labour relations for the Toronto Star for 14 years — I never think of strikes.

I think of the grievance procedure that helps union members unjustly treated by their employers to regain their jobs, get their back pay, or have their vacation or sick leave credits restored.

I think of the union programs that help rehabilitate workers with depression, alcohol and drug addictions, and other personal problems.

I think of the unions’ campaigns against racism and discrimination.

I think of the union locals that compete with one another to raise the most money for the United Way and other charitable agencies.

I think of the unions’ ongoing efforts to improve workplace health and safety and reduce the carnage of workplace deaths, injuries and disease.

I think of the high priority so many unions have given to the elimination of pay and hiring discrimination against women and Indigenous peoples.

What unions are all about

These are just a few examples of what unions are really all about. Of course bargaining with employers on wages and benefits is a core responsibility, but it’s far from an exclusive one. Most of the activities of unions, unheralded and unsung, have nothing to do with strikes. They have to do with helping workers — and not just their own members — cope with life’s hardships and uncertainties, both on the job and off.

If you were to follow most union representatives around for a few months, you would probably never see one of them involved with a strike. You’d see them assisting a union local’s officers in processing grievances. You’d see them helping workers file their claims for unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation. You’d see them spending many nights at pre-negotiation planning meetings in union halls or hotel rooms, instead of being where they’d prefer — at home with their families.

Certainly, strikes do happen. But few deserve the bad press they get. Most strikes are forced on unions when management refuses to bargain in good faith. Most people tend to forget that the right to strike as a last resort is an integral part of the free collective bargaining system. In most plants and offices, it’s the only leverage unions have to counter a powerful and aggressive employer. It’s a weapon that unions are careful not to abuse, and used only when they are left with no other choice.

Labour’s historic benefits

All Canadians, whether they know it or not (and most don’t), live better lives because of the achievements of the labour movement — usually just because unions have the right to strike, not necessarily because they exercise it.

If you look back at Canada’s 150-year history, you’ll find that many of the basic rights and benefits we all enjoy were initially fought for and won by unions. Organized labour was in the forefront of the struggles for public health care, for public education and pensions, for improvements in employment conditions and the minimum wage.

Most employees today work 40 hours or less a week instead of 50 or more, because the railroad unions went on strike for a shorter work week with the same pay in the 1950s. They won that historic battle despite the railway companies’ mendacious claim they’d never be able to afford it. It was a labour victory that led in a few years to the adoption of the 40-hour work week as a standard schedule across the country.

Later, the provision of year-long legislated paid parental leave was sparked by a breakthrough at the bargaining table by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which made it a priority in negotiations. This gain, too, like the 40-hour work week, soon became a universal benefit.

Some of the other major improvements in our social programs were similarly pioneered by the Steelworkers, Canadian Auto Workers, and other industrial unions.

Without the unions, striving arduously over the years in so many ways, in so many provinces, cities and towns from coast to coast, the socioeconomic strands that hold our country together today would not be nearly so strong.

Unlike most Canadians, who lack the insights I have had into what unions actually do, I never think about them in terms of the infrequent strikes that get all the media coverage. I think mainly of the unions’ ongoing commitment to the protection and advancement of the interests of working people — including those who are not union members. It’s a shame that, at this milestone in Canada’s history, the labour movement will still be denied the recognition it deserves for making this country a better place to live.

Ed Finn was Senior Editor at the CCPA and editor of the CCPA Monitor from 1994-2014. Formerly, as a journalist, he worked at The Montreal Gazette and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.