Anyone who has been keeping tabs on recent developments in what can accurately be called the assault on trade unions and working people in the U.S., Britain, Ireland, and much of continental Europe, knew that it would eventually come to Canada.

This attack on labour is largely a result of the growing income inequality in our society - there has been a marked trend whereby the wealthy have been getting more wealthy and workers have not. This video, released in October 2012 by the National Union of Public and General Employees explains the growing income inequality in Canada.

The Assault On Labour

At the beginning of this decade business media, including The Economist and Time Magazine, were pointing to, and even encouraging, a coming confrontation between the state and public sector unions in the U.S. and elsewhere. Their argument was simple: public sector workers are privileged, living high off the hog on taxpayers’ money; while governments are confronted with deficits and growing debts. The solution was obvious: transform public sector workers into supplicants by stripping them of their organizational and collective bargaining rights.

We have since seen a succession of state governments launch legislative agendas to achieve this outcome. Wisconsin led the way. Similar initiatives are now underway in Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Amnesty International reports that: “As well as restricting collective bargaining rights, union activists say that legislators in 37 states have introduced hundreds of anti-union bills. Some affect negotiation of health care benefits, restrict freedom of association, place caps on the minimum wage and deprive workers of the right to strike.”[1]

There is no mystery about what’s happening in the U.S. This attack on unions is yet another spike in a relentless campaign by business interests and right-wing politicians to eliminate unions and erode workers’ rights. This campaign started immediately following the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), which established rule of law in the work place, and the right of workers to join unions and bargain collectively with their employers to establish wages and working conditions. It was led by big and small (through the Chamber of Commerce) business. It has been relentless ever since, and is now a central part of what has been a 40 year effort to shift income, wealth and power from working people and the poor, to the richest 10 percent of income earners.

The success of this campaign is evident in the contrasting union densities in the U.S. and Canada. In 1955, before wide-spread unionization in the public sectors, union density was about 34 percent in both countries; today it is 31.2 percent in Canada, but has plummeted to 13.7 percent in the U.S. The attack on trade unions in the U.S. has been successful, and is now being accelerated.

The labour movement in Wisconsin has responded to the draconian actions of Governor Scott Walker by launching a campaign to block the legislation through mass mobilization of union members, and demonstrations in the streets in the state capital, Madison. While this counter campaign failed to achieve its immediate objective, it has succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest expectations in alerting workers throughout the U.S. that right-wing governments backed by business interests are intent on obliterating the many social and economic achievements of organized labour---won, it is important to remember, at the cost of thousands of deaths and injuries to union activists over the 19th and 20th centuries. Because of these union-led struggles, life has been made better in countless ways for the majority of Americans. The assault on trade unions aims to smash those gains, and to do so, to smash the trade union movement that made such gains possible.

While there is no doubt that unions have brought significant benefits to society in recent decades, many of these precious, hard-fought union gains — job security, workplace pensions, as well as broader social goals like public pensions and unemployment insurance — have been under fierce attack by the corporate world with the support of right leaning governments.

Part of the strategy has been to pit worker against worker. So, as private sector workers have lost ground, they’ve been encouraged to resent public sector workers, whose unions have generally been stronger and better able to protect them. Workers without pensions have been encouraged to question why other workers should have a pension plan.

Before accepting such arguments people should remember that in many cases unions are the only organized line of defense against the broad right-wing assault on a wide range of social programs and government regulations important to most citizens.

Governments and businesses claim that many of these benefits and protections have to be cut back to make our economy more flexible in an era of globalization. In fact, what is referred to as “globalization” is simply the set of laws governing the global economy. There’s nothing natural or inevitable about these laws, which have been crafted by corporate interests and their think-tanks. They just reflect the growing political muscle of the corporate elite, which has reshaped international and domestic laws in recent decades to their own advantage.

One of the most outrageous attacks on hard-won benefits in Canada was Harper’s decision last year to raise public pension eligibility by two years. Most commentators supported the move, noting that people are living longer.

The real question is: as the country has grown richer, who should benefit? Under the more egalitarian system that prevailed during the early postwar decades, the economic benefits would have been more widely shared and could have been used to actually lower the retirement age (or extend holiday time, such as in Scandinavia, where the norm is six weeks paid vacation).

Over the past few decades the trend has been away from the equitable distribution of wealth to a more unequal one. Indeed, instead of being widely shared, almost all the benefits of economic growth in recent decades have been siphoned off by a small corporate elite. It’s that same corporate elite, and its political and media supporters, who now assure us that unions are no longer relevant. This is not happening by mistake.[2]
  1. ^ Amnesty International; Human Rights Now, March 17, 2011
  2. ^ Toronto Star, Linda McQuaig; February 12, 2013