Organized labour has proven itself the most effective means to ensure that workers are able to demand and enforce their rights in the labour market. And perhaps the single most essential role of organized labour is to enable collective bargaining.

“Collective bargaining is really the raison d’etre for unions,” says Doug Marshall, President of the Union of National Employees. “The prime objective of a union is to ensure a good collective agreement for its members and to ensure that workers have fair terms and condition of employment.”

The negotiation of collective agreements is the mechanism by which unions guarantee that their workers are treated and compensated fairly.

“Every generation of people who have come here have discovered two things: first, that there is a lot wealth and prosperity here, and second that in order to get a fair share of that prosperity they needed collective representation.”

The right to collective bargaining is so important that it is specifically called out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Canada, a 2007 Supreme Court review of this basic right found that “The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty, and autonomy of workers.”

Collective bargaining benefits everyone

Collective bargaining has indeed measurably improved the standard of living for millions of Canadians, especially those in traditionally disadvantaged groups such as women, First Nations, and new Canadians. “In general, the worker advantage of being unionized in the Greater Toronto Area is roughly $5 an hour,” says John Cartwright, President of the Toronto and York Labour Council.

“For women, it is more, because only unions have been able to really force through pay equity programs that recognize the historic discrimination against women. For workers of colour, the difference is huge.”

Beyond the obvious benefits to unionized workers, there are also substantial gains for society as a whole. Collective bargaining raises the bar on compensation, even for non-unionized workers, and it goes a long way towards reducing the income inequality between the richest and the poorest, which is a major societal concern.

“People who are far from being socialist economists have started to write about the biggest problem with capitalism now being that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” says Marshall. “And this has a detrimental effect on the economy as a whole.”

It’s invisible when things go right

And yet, negative perceptions of collective bargaining remain, primarily due to media coverage of strikes and lockouts. The truth is that these events are the result of the rare occasions when negotiation breaks down. The vast majority of successful and equitable bargainings never make the news. “Roughly 97 percent of all collective agreements are reached without a course of strike action,” says Cartwright.

Moreover, the situations where bargaining does break down have increasingly been focused on a single issue: the desire of employers to take advantage of the weakened economy to underpay young workers. “Many of the bitterest disputes in the last few years have been about older workers standing up for the next generation of workers,” says Cartwright. “Employers are demanding that the next generation be devalued and paid less for the same work.”

This just goes to show that collective bargaining is as vital now as ever. The need for it is built into the very fabric of our prosperous capitalist economy. “Ever since the First Nations gave us the name Toronto, which means ’The Gathering Place,’ this has been a city built by immigrants and refugees and their descendants,” says Cartwright.

“Every generation of people who have come here have discovered two things: first, that there is a lot wealth and prosperity here, and second that in order to get a fair share of that prosperity they needed collective representation.”

If we want to continue living in a country that is seen as a beacon of prosperity and equality. To do so, we must continue to recognize collective bargaining as a fundamental pillar of our democracy. And united we must stand against those who would seek to weaken that pillar.