For decades now, politicians, business people, and conservative media pundits have been feeding Albertans a constant stream of negative messages about unions.
In order to appreciate the true value of unions, I’d like to engage in a thought experiment. Put simply: imagine there were no unions in Alberta.

Unions for the common good

Right now, Alberta’s 420,000 unionized workers make an average of 18 percent more per hour compared to their non-unionized counterparts. Economists agree that union contracts have the effect of pulling wages up for all workers in a given sector, not just those who belong to unions. So, if there were no unions, what do you think would happen to family incomes in the province?

“Economists agree that union contracts have the effect of pulling wages up for all workers in a given sector, not just those who belong
to unions.”

If that doesn’t convince you, consider things like pensions (Canadian Pension Plan), drug and dental benefits (Medicare), and workplace safety. If there were no unions to establish benchmarks for benefits and pensions or to fight for safer work places, do you think employers would improve upon the status quo, or would they backslide?

The final question I’d like to present to you as part of my thought experiment looks to the future, not the past, and has to do with an issue that is raising concerns around the world: income inequality.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently released a report saying growing income inequality is threatening global economic security. Countries with high levels of income inequality are more prone to recessions because their citizens have weak or declining purchasing power. At the same time, they face higher crime rates, lower educational scores, and shorter life expectancies.

The fight for income equality

Growing inequality is also problematic because increasing concentration of economic power invariably leads to increasing political power for the rich — which, in turn, subverts real democracy. What does any of this have to do with Alberta or with unions? Well, it probably comes as no surprise to anyone that Alberta is, by far, Canada’s most unequal province.

According to the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute, almost all of Alberta’s robust economic growth over the past 30 years has been gobbled up by a small sliver of people at the top of our province’s economic ladder. One of the most striking features of Alberta’s economic story is that the rise of incomes for the top 1 percent has been almost exactly inversely proportional to the decline in union coverage in the province, brought about by anti-union labour laws.

To put it another way, the harder it became for unions to organize, the easier it became for those at the top of the pyramid to grab the fruits of economic growth for themselves, rather than sharing them with everyone else.

That’s why Labour Day should be a day to contemplate the role of unions, not just the role of workers. We should celebrate unions because they are still needed in Alberta today — now, more than ever.