At work, the primary advantage of being a union member is that an employee gains a real voice at work. A union contract usually has provisions regarding the following: job security, promotion and discipline, access to training, hours of work, health and safety, and other issues.  All of which are made effective by informal union representation to management or through the formal grievance and arbitration process.

Non-union workers have access to some of these rights under employment standards legislation, but over 90 percent of complaints are made after a worker has lost her or his job. Employees without a union voice are extremely reluctant to file a complaint that their rights are being violated if they are forced to act in the workplace on their own. 

Contrary to myth, unions seek to foster positive working relationships with management in order to maintain and create good jobs. It is the role of unions to press the case for worker interests, but the norm is for reasonable accommodation rather than conflict. Strikes are very rare events that both sides prefer to avoid. 

The comparable advantage

Unionized workers generally enjoy a pay and benefits advantage compared with otherwise comparable non-union workers, and pay gaps based on gender and race are much smaller in unionized workplaces. Shrinking union representation since the late 1980s, especially in the private sector, is closely associated with increased income inequality in Canada. By the same token, Canada is a significantly more equal society than the United States because the proportion of unionized workers is much higher — about 30 percent compared with 12 percent.

“Shrinking union representation since the late 1980s...is closely associated with increased income inequality in Canada.”

Progressive Canadian labour leaders recognize a key goal is to expand union coverage to include more low-paid and insecure workers, especially women and recent immigrants; and, to speak for all working people, be they union or non-union, when it comes to political advocacy. The Canadian labour movement has recently fought major campaigns to raise minimum wages and to expand the Canada Pension Plan so as to raise pay and benefits for the two in three workers who are not union members. 

Unions in Canada have been under attack for quite some time by right-wing governments, especially by the recently defeated Harper government. But, the public has generally recognized that the labour movement plays an important and constructive economic and social role. Their significance furthers the progress of all working Canadians, making a difference in the lives of families.