Are modern unions still important, effective?

By in Opinions

Strong unions set standards for employee prosperity by improving wages and providing a body of regulations to defend the rights of workers. But can unions continue to play an active part in our modern economy?

Union advocacy around the world changed laws and set standards that workers continue to enjoy today. Even if you are not a member of a union, you have benefits that unions’ members have fought for. Historically, unions have fought for many rights that are now protected by labour law.

In Canada, the printers’ strike of 1872 made way for the federal legalization of union activity after workers argued for shorter work weeks, demanding the so-called luxury of 9-hour work days in Toronto. Other efforts fought to establish fair wages — where full-time work actually provides enough money to support a family — and secure unemployment insurance.

The right to safety in the workplace has also been championed by unions, with workers first lobbying against the Ontario government in the 1960s, which then led to Saskatchewan’s Occupational Health Act, which now also protects an individual’s right to refuse unsafe work.

Unions have also fought to provide workers with paid time off, like maternity leaves and other parental benefits — starting with 15 weeks of paid maternity leave in 1971 at 66 per cent of wages. Later, in 1981, after 42 days of striking, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers won 17 weeks of paid maternity leave.

According to Statistics Canada, unionization rates are dropping in Canada, falling from 37.6 per cent in 1981 to 28.8 per cent in 2014. One potential reason for this decline is that our economy has changed since the heyday of union activism. Many of the benefits that unions fought for are now protected under law.

A participant in the 2018 UFCW strike walks past the Attridge Drive Co-op location in Saskatoon.

Formerly union-strong industries like manufacturing have been moved overseas where labour is cheaper. This, in turn, means that workers now have less power to bargain and seek improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions. Businesses will always seek to lower costs to increase profits.

The minimum wage in Saskatchewan is $11.06 per hour. Living Wage Canada suggests that, in Saskatoon, an hourly rate of of $16.19 would better cover the actual cost of living in the city. According to their data, workers here are only making about two-thirds of what they need to meet basic needs. Paying a living wage raises workers out of poverty and provides a better quality of life. A living wage is said to benefit both the employer and the community, with healthier workers, lower absenteeism and less employee turnover. It would appear that strong unions are needed to advocate for workers more than ever.

Statistics Canada reports that, as of June, consumer prices are growing at their fastest rate in six years. 

Unions still fight for wage equality, continually seeking equal pay for equal work for all employees. Recently, Saskatoon Co-op employees have mobilized to take a stand against a two-tiered wage structure that bars new employees from achieving the same wages as current staff. These workers are fighting for the future, for workers who haven’t even been employed yet — its a moving example of solidarity.

The fight for equality is also part of the ongoing Canada Post worker strike, as they fight for equal wages for workers in rural centres. Urban letter carriers — mostly men — are paid by the hour, whereas rural letter carriers — mostly women — are paid based on route size. This means that women working in a rural setting employed by Canada Post generally earn less for the same work as men in urban settings.

Unions offer protection to workers, requiring justification for decisions to fire or discipline workers. Workers have a formal grievance process in place to resolve issues. Unions also have a long history of taking the government to court to protect workers’ rights.

Following changes to Saskatchewan labour laws in 2008, unions took the Saskatchewan government to the Supreme Court of Canada for violations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court declared The Public Service Essential Services Act unconstitutional in 2015.

Without unions, we wouldn’t have the safety, comfort and benefits that we take for granted in the jobs we hold today. So the next time you are driving past workers walking the picket line, honk in solidarity or stop to walk with them to show your support as they fight for us all.

Tara Zwozdesky

Photo: Riley Deacon / Photo Editor