Unions matter. Why pretend they don't?

By Nora Loreto

One of the triumphs of neoliberalism is the demonization of unions.

Thanks to a dominant discourse that has been imagined by Canada’s 1%, inspired by Thatcherism and actively and passively fed to us through complicit journalists, many Canadians have no idea how unions protect them, regardless of whether or not they’re members of a union.

This creates an intense urgency: union activists must express their necessity or risk greater decline.

Nearly all activists feel this urgency and, unsurprisingly, several books and articles on the importance of unions have recently been written (including my own).

One of these books is Unions Matter. It contains 12 articles divided into three parts and drawn from the International Conference on Labour Rights and Their Impact on Democracy, Economic Equality and Social Justice.

The anthology is critical for anyone in need of a reference tool for the most up-to-date statistics that relate to unions: income breakdowns, unionization rates and all the charts based on the Gini coefficient that you can handle! It covers strike statistics, how unions have advanced human rights in Canada and court decisions that protect and enshrine workers’ right to strike.

Unlikely to convince someone who is anti-union on its own, Unions Matter provides the fodder for union activists to be able to make important arguments in favour of unionization. Even more important, the statistics and arguments in Unions Matter could be used by labour activists to convince the ambivalent of the fact that, yes, unions matter.

Section one, “Reducing Income Inequality Through Labour Rights,” gives an impressive overview of the role unions have played to reorganize wealth in Canada. As union density has dropped, Canadian society has become objectively more unequal. The data presented in this section demonstrates the trend between union density and inequality is not casual, but directly connected.

Unions are not just agents of economic redistribution, though. In section two, “Promoting Democracy, Economic Equality and Social Rights,” the articles examine the role that unions have played and should play in defending social rights and fighting against injustice. The section examines how, through activism rather than simply through structural redistribution, unions defend democracy and the human rights of all people, regardless of union membership.

The only full-chapter case study is featured in the second section, written by Naveen Mehta from the UFCW. Mehta highlights the ways in which UFCW has defended workers who have come to Canada through the Temporary Foreign Workers Program and argues that the strength of the UFCW is their ability to reach beyond the role of a traditional union and help organize and bring fairness to this exploited class of workers.

Section three, “Constitutional Protection of Labour Rights,” examines how the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms should protect collective bargaining rights, despite recent attacks levelled by various governments on workers’ right to freely bargain and legally strike.

This section is especially important considering how often unions have been forced to accept concessions contracts through legislative measures.

Unions Matter isn’t, though, a book for the slightly interested. Unions Matter is dense and academic. With many of the arguments premised on the same data, it is, at times, repetitive and difficult to read. Rather than read from front to back, readers should choose the articles that interest them the most and consume the rest, driven by their interests.

Perhaps the most important message is not that unions play an important structural role in resource distribution, but that they must engage in political battles. While facts and arguments are necessary to convince people of the need for unions, unions themselves need to be politically active, fighting for the rights of all Canadians, not just their members.

Indeed, building the necessary campaign to fight neoliberal and austerity measures will require unions to engage in political action.

While Unions Matter might not provide union activists with a road map on how to do that, it does offer the requisite facts to shut down any anti-union, right wing argument that might be floating around the ether.

Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the rabble.ca series UP! Canadian Labour Rising. Check out Nora’s blog on rabble.ca.