Ken Georgetti 
President, 
Canadian Labour Congress
                                                


Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak harasses the men and women who belong to unions at every opportunity. He promised that, if elected, he would bring in U.S.-style legislation designed to weaken unions and make it more difficult for working people to get ahead — but an odd thing has happened. Hudak has found that Ontarians are worried about his reckless plans to disrupt a system of labour relations that has served the province well for decades. In fact, a good number of Hudak’s caucus members were also uncomfortable with what their boss was plotting. He backed off, or at least he says he has, but that didn’t save the Conservatives from going down to electoral defeat in the Niagara Falls byelection in February. 

Pitting us against each other

Hudak was proposing to introduce legislation allowing workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues, even while they received all of the wages, benefits and representation resulting from a union’s negotiate on behalf of all employees. Hudak said it would be okay for workers to choose not to pay dues and free-ride at the expense of their co-workers who do. That unethical and unfair, and pitting workers against each other would also be a recipe for conflict and disruption in the workplace. In the American states where such laws exist, the average worker earns less in a year than in states that do not have such laws. Poverty rates are higher and the rate of workplace accidents and deaths are higher as well. Ontario deserves better than this.

“We have research showing that centres with more union members support a richer mix of businesses and services.”

Key to our future

It is little wonder that in 2013, Canadian Business magazine advised Hudak and other politicians of his ilk to drop the idea. But Hudak simply can’t be trusted when it comes to his plans harass unions, or for the Ontario economy. He seems to believe that the key to our future lies in the creation of low wage McJobs, but we already have far too many people, especially young people, trapped in precarious, poorly paid and part-time jobs. In 2013, 80 percent of jobs created in Canada were part-time. What people aspire to for themselves and their children is secure, family supporting jobs. Most often those are union jobs and the entire community benefits from them. 

Richer mix of businesses and services

We have research showing that centres with more union members support a richer mix of businesses and services. Unionized workers spend their pay cheques close to home, supporting local businesses and the community. The benefits that unions have negotiated for their members support a host of professional businesses in our communities — dental offices, chiropractors, physiotherapists to name just a few. 

There is a direct correlation between a healthy middle class and the existence of progressive labour laws that actually promote the ability of people to join unions and bargain collectively. Prominent economic organizations like the OECD say that one of the best mechanisms to achieve a healthy middle class that underpins sustainable economic growth is to have broad access to collective bargaining.

Weakening workers

Yet at some point in the last thirty years, North America’s politicians decided that free trade, lower corporate taxes, and weakening workers’ to access collective bargaining would result in greater prosperity. It might have, but certainly only for a few people. The record is pretty clear. Growing inequality, stagnated wages, a shrinking middle class, slower growth and fewer good quality jobs have been the outcome. 

There’s no doubt a healthy middle class is a key economic driver. Unions play an essential role in building that healthy middle class — a fact seemingly unrecognized by today’s brand of conservative politicians.