With celebrations approaching for the annual observance of Labour Day, most Canadians still don’t know why workers deserve to have their own special holiday.
Apart from the union members who participate in marches and picnics that day, the substantial benefits all Canadians have derived from organized labour go largely unacknowledged.
This lack of esteem is understandable. Considering the often-disparaging depiction of unions in the mass media, the notion that they have made significant contributions to the country’s welfare tends to draw skepticism, if not disdain.
Given a word-association test, the response of most people to the word “union” would be “strikes.”
How else could they be expected to react? The only time they are likely to read about unions in the newspapers or see or hear about them on TV or radio is when their members are walking the picket lines. The automatic assumption is that what unions mainly do is go on strike.
In fact, the average union member is on the job 95 per cent of his or her working life. Since unions negotiate 97 out of every 100 collective agreements peacefully at the bargaining table, a strike is an exceptional event. But since amicably settled contracts don’t make the news, it’s the rare strike that gets the headlines.
As someone who has worked for and with labour organizations for more than 40 years – and written a column on labour relations for the Toronto Star for 14 years – I never associate unions with strikes.
I think of the grievance procedure that helps union members unjustly treated by their employers to regain their jobs, get their back pay, or have their vacation or sick leave credits restored.
I think of the unions’ campaigns against racism and discrimination.
I think of the unions’ ongoing efforts to improve workplace health and safety and reduce the carnage of workplace deaths and injuries.
I think of the high priority so many unions have given to the elimination of pay and hiring discrimination.
These are just a few examples of how unions really function. Of course bargaining with employers on wages and benefits is a core responsibility, but it’s far from an exclusive one. Most of the activities of unions, unheralded and unsung, have nothing to do with strikes.
Look back at Canada’s 150-year history, and you’ll find that many of the basic rights and benefits we all enjoy were originally fought for and won by unions. Unions were in the forefront of the struggles for public health care, for public education and pensions, for improvements in employment conditions and the minimum wage.
Most employees today work 40 hours or less a week instead of 50 or more, because in the 1950s the railroad unions went on strike for a shorter work week with the same pay. They won that historic battle, a labour victory that led in a few years to the adoption of the 40-hour work week as a standard schedule for all workers, unionized or not.
Later, the provision of year-long legislated paid parental leave was initiated at the bargaining table by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which made it a priority in negotiations. This gain, too, soon became a universal benefit.
In both the private and public sectors, it was the unions, through collective bargaining, that also pioneered overtime pay, sick leave, paid vacations, jointly funded pension plans and other now-taken-for-granted employment benefits.
Without the unions, striving arduously over the years in so many ways, in cities and towns from coast to coast, the socioeconomic strands that hold our country together today would not be nearly so sturdy.
It’s a shame that, on this as on previous Labour Days, the unions still lack the recognition they deserve for helping to make this country a better place in which to live.
This piece was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen.