Mediaplanet: How have unions impacted Ontario’s workforce?

John Telford: Through fair, collective bargaining, construction unions—and all unions as a matter of fact—have improved the lives of union members and their families; a side benefit to this is that all workers have also been swept along to better wages and conditions. The union workforce of Ontario is highly motivated, multi-skilled and professional and, most importantly, the safest workforce in the world. What a pleasure it is to see young men and women entering the unionized construction industry. There are great times ahead.

Sharon DeSousa: People tend to think of unions as only benefiting workers they represent, but they actually benefit everyone. In Ontario, unions helped create Workers Compensation, Employment Insurance, anti-sexual harassment laws, employment standards and Occupational Health and Safety laws. Without unions, people in Ontario today would not have these programs and laws to protect them. 

Paul Tsang: Unions improve working conditions for union members and non-union workers. Unions campaign for improvements to social benefits, such as public healthcare, Canada Pension Plan, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, maternity leave, anti-harassment and occupational health and safety, and minimum wage. Unions are challenging growing income inequality by opposing tax cuts for the rich, which are paid for by cuts to public services like education, health care, child care and social assistance that have the biggest impact on the poor and on middle class Ontarians.

 Mediaplanet: What would Canada’s future look like without unions?

John Telford: I would hate to think of the construction landscape without unions and fair union contractors. The first casualty would be the quality of work.  The non-union contractors make a living utilizing 5 percent licensed tradespeople and by using 95 percent casual labour with no thought on apprenticeship or building the workforce of the future. Another major concern would be safety. The workplace would become a killing zone with absolutely no respect for the workers' safety if it adversely affected the bottom line.

Sharon DeSousa: Canadians just have to look at what’s happening in the United States as an example. In the U.S., union membership has been declining for years and with that we’ve seen lower wages and a disappearance of benefits and pensions. But it’s not just the economy that’s suffered; unions are a part of a healthy democracy by providing a voice for workers. Without unions, I worry about the quality of life for our children and the generations that follow.

Paul Tsang: Unions are needed to negotiate the terms and conditions of work. Unions ensure fairness at work, a dispute resolution process with timelines and accountability, and protection for workers standing up for their rights to refuse dangerous work, and protection against workplace harassment and discrimination.  A Union contract also protects employers, ensuring no job action during the life of the agreement. Without unions, there would be a race-to-the-bottom on wages, health and safety, more precarious temporary work, and work without benefits.

Mediaplanet: What does Labour Day mean to you?

John Telford: At some point on Labour Day, I reflect back on the plumbers, fitters and welders who taught me my trades.  These same people supported me as a tradesman, supervisor and eventually as their Business Manager.  When I think of the individuals who spent so much of their lives teaching, mentoring and supporting me, it humbles me and I am reminded of all the men and women I work for and what they expect and deserve from me. It definitely keeps me grounded.

Sharon DeSousa: When I was younger, Labour Day was simply a long weekend to spend with my family and friends. Until I became part of a union, I didn’t realize Labour Day represented the history of how workers fought for their rights for a better life. Now I see Labour Day as a celebration of our Canadian heritage and I am honoured to be a part of that history.

Paul Tsang: Labour Day for me is about family, the community, and a vision for a better future. I take my wife and kids on the annual Labour Day parade, walk through the communities where workers and their families and friends live, and take pride in being part of the tens of thousands of fellow union members working hard every day towards a shared vision of good jobs for all, for a living wage, with dignity and respect in the workplace.