“Unions. What are they good for?!”

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Here is an excerpt of a speech I delivered to a classroom filled with PSW students at George Brown College.

“Unions. What are they good for?!” I hear this a lot from people who think unions have outlived their purpose. A large minority of Canadians feel unions are not good for the economy. They believe organized labour had a role in the 19th century but they have outlived their purpose in today’s economy. Some even feel unionized workers are overpaid and lazy.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Unions negotiate collective agreements that improve their working conditions. Unionized workers on average earn 30% more than non-unionized workers. They enjoy better pensions, improved medical and dental benefit plans, pensions, job security, and much more. Unionized employees are far more likely to belong to the middle class than their non-union counterparts.

Have unions outlived their purpose? Absolutely not. Many of us don’t even know about all the great things unions have done for us. Unions are responsible for creating a 5-day work week, an 8-hour day, a two-day weekend, outlawed child labour, introduced health and safety laws, a minimum wage, 2-week vacations, paid holidays, and much more. Many of us today simply take these things for granted. Many people don’t realize a strong labour movement is what stops these things from being taken away from us. Remember, it wasn’t Bay Street, Canada’s Fortune 500, big banks, or factory owners who fought for these things. It was unions. 

Contrary to what people think, unions haven’t lost that much power over the past 50 years. 31.5% of Canadians workers belong to a union. That’s almost one-third of the Canadian labour force. And some unions are growing at a very fast rate. Take SEIU Healthcare for example. They have grown by 46% over the past 12 years. The union has expanded in nursing homes, homecare, retirement homes, hospitals and community services. In fact, SEIU Healthcare is one of the fastest growing unions in Ontario.

In the United States, unions have lost much of their power over the past 50 years. And it shows. Only 11% of workers are unionized. Did you know the Americans are not entitled to any paid vacation time? In Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, every paid worker has a right to at least four weeks of vacation. In America, companies are not required to provide any vacation time whatsoever. Companies usually provide vacation time, but there is no law requiring them to do so.

The American minimum wage is much lower too. In Ontario the minimum wage is $11.25. In the United States it’s $7.25. The good news however is that thanks to the efforts of SEIU International and other unions, many cities in the US have adopted the $15/hr minimum wage.

In individual states where unions are weak, employee salaries on average tend to be slightly lower than the Canadian average. Does that mean companies are saving money on labour costs? Managerial and executive salaries tend to be higher. In other words, unions don’t force companies to spend money on high wages they can’t afford. That money simply stays at the top.

Without a strong labour movement, Corporate Canada has a lot more power to take away the rights and freedoms Canadian employees have fought for over the past 150 years. Unions give employees a voice in their workplace – a voice that should never fall silent.

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