2015 is a federal election year in Canada: cue the political appeals to “working families” and the ceremonial wooing of Canada’s middle class.

To be sure, there will be tax cuts, the political mainstay of Canadian elections these days. But tax cuts never built Canada’s middle class; and they can’t save it either.

"In short, if you care about the project of a sustained middle class – the promise that future generations will be able to enjoy decent work and a good standard of living – then you care about the project of a viable labour movement."

If you really care about preserving a vibrant middle class in Canada, let’s start with talking about the ingredients needed to create decent jobs – the ultimate safety net for the middle class.

In a world of precarious work, having a sense of job security is an important component of decent work.

The labour movement

When you’re raising kids, having access to good employment benefits, like dental care and paid sick leave, is another dream of the middle class family. And, given average real wages have been virtually stagnant in non-oil boom provinces post-2009, knowing you’re in a job where workers can use their collective bargaining power to negotiate regular pay raises is also important.

In short, if you care about the project of a sustained middle class – the promise that future generations will be able to enjoy decent work and a good standard of living – then you care about the project of a viable labour movement.

The labour movement is frequently vilified by politicians who advance a free market agenda, but unions are the key to a vibrant economy and a healthy democracy. Post-war, as Canada was busy growing its middle class, the number of workers represented by a union grew in lock step.

The dipping density

CCPA Research Associate Jordan Brennan has documented the impact of unionization on incomes: between 1940 and 1977, as union density doubled in Canada, hourly earnings tripled. During that period, Canada was able to reduce income inequality by ensuring more of the gains of economic growth were shared with more workers.

But since 1977, union density has been dropping, hourly earnings stagnated, and income inequality worsened over a 30-year period.

Recent research from CCPA Research Associate Hugh Mackenzie shows that a decline in private sector unionized workers has resulted in workers “getting kicked out of the middle class”.

His research also shows that unionized jobs matter, especially during economic downturns: workers who lose their unionized jobs during a recession are more likely to drop one or two rungs down the income ladder but workers who gain a unionized job during a recession are more likely to climb up a notch or two.

“They’re not only better positioned to weather economic storms, they’re more likely to experience the Canadian middle-class dream of upward income mobility,” Mackenzie says.

The win for democracy

It’s why I look to unions as great equalizers. Unions give democratic voice to workers in the workplace. They win public program victories – like parental leave – that benefit everyone.

They’re the bargaining power that, for at least 70 years, helped to ensure the gains of economic growth were more fairly distributed. They’re vital to democracy: for equality, for freedom of expression, and the right to dissent.

This election year, as politicians of all stripes vie for the middle class vote, listen to what they plan to do about enhancing the quality of work opportunities in Canada.

Are they attempting to take away unions’ right to organize or protect it? Are they attempting to strip unionized workers of benefits or protect them? Are they encouraging a race to the bottom in wages or are they promoting higher wages for all workers, unionized or not?

The answers to those questions could be revealing.