Why Unions

Unions are groups of working people who join together to talk to employers about wages and conditions of work instead of workers talking to employers on an individual basis. Because they speak for everybody, unions can get a better deal for each worker than one employee could get negotiating with the employer.

The proof is out there - collective bargaining is the most efficient way to improve your standards on the job. According to Statistics Canada (August 2008), full time unionized workers make almost 20% more than their non-union counterparts. These figures are exclusive of benefits so they would likely be higher if benefits such as dental, medical and pension plans were factored in. This is something to keep in mind when discussing the value of unions.

Statistics Canada Results - Union and Non Union Wages

Before unions existed, employees were truly at the sole mercy of their employers. Men, women and children were used to provide profit for unscrupulous and greedy businesses and then cast aside when they were no longer considered useful. Countless people were either killed or permanently injured on the job and many more people put up with inhumane working conditions just to hold onto a meager existence for themselves and their families. Women were typically paid less than a third of what the average man was and children received even worse treatment.

Throughout most of the 19th century unions were illegal organizations. Legislation prohibited membership, organization, or even talking about unions. The penalties for those who sought to organize were stiff: fines, jail or being shut out of the job market were all too common. Even so, people continued to organize because they wanted to provide a better life for themselves and for future generations.

To learn more about the history of the labour movement in Canada please visit the Canadian Museum of Civilization at this link: (English) (French)

Today many modern employers continue to fight against unions because they know that a union will fight for good wages and benefits as well as fairness and equity in the workplace and that they will fight against intimidation and favouritism.

Here are just a few of the benefits that unions can take credit for: health and safety Legislation, shorter work weeks, employment standards, minimum wages, statutory holidays, holiday pay, parental leave, worker's compensation benefits, sick leave, vacation entitlement, seniority rights, the right for employees to bargain collectively, anti-harassment policies in the workplace, medical and dental benefits and employment insurance benefits, on the job training and job security.

Unions represent workers interests politically and from the bargaining table. History has shown us that governments and employers are prepared to roll back many basic collective bargaining and democratic rights unless we defend ourselves through our unions. "Cutbacks", "concessions", "flexibility", "contracting-out" and "deregulation" have been on the corporate agenda for many years now and their general purpose is to undermine working people and to shrink the middle class. It is no secret that certain business interests want Canadians to believe and accept that everything should be privatized and must be 'market driven' including education and health care. But the fact is, that the majority of Canadians do not support this agenda. Many unions act as the employer's 'social conscience' and countless union activists work hard to educate their members and to keep these Canadian values alive. Unions across Canada have taken a strong stand in their belief that everyone has a right to fair wages and benefits, decent health care, public education, and free access to emergency services. Most unions do not believe that profit is a dirty word but they do believe that workers should benefit proportionately from the wealth that they help create as workers.

To read more about the Economics and Social Impacts of Unions, please click here.

Meanwhile, big business and the media that represent their interests, continue to promote the myths that tend to keep workers distracted, divided and unorganized.

Let's examine just a few of those myths now:

1. Unions are passé - they used to be necessary - but they no longer serve a purpose

Not only are unions necessary but often, they are the only hope most workers have at getting a fair deal. Although employers will sometimes attempt to convince employees that they can do better on their own, statistically, that premise simply isn't supported by the facts (see above link to Stats Can Report on Union and Non Union Wages).

We all know that more and more Canadians are not keeping pace with the real costs of living and many workers complain that there is no longer a balance between their work and home life. The gap between those who make the profits and those who take them is growing and will continue to do so unless workers protect themselves by banding together. Collectively, union members can do more to ensure workers receive a fair wage and a proportionate share of the profits. Unions also bring a better balance to life because they negotiate time off provisions that help workers maintain the balance between work and home.

To read more on this subject-click on the link below to see the Article "Unions are still our best hope" by John Jacobs. 

2. If you don't like your job - you can vote with your feet

Yes, if you're treated unfairly at work, you can always 'vote with your feet' and quit your job. How many employees find that an 'open door' policy really means "if you don't like what's going on - the door's open- feel free to leave"? But why should that be the only choice you have? Why should any employee be forced to accept inequitable treatment or quit their job, lose pay, lose pension credits or contributions, and put themselves and their family through uncertainty and turmoil? Unions uphold the principle that good employees deserve to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect.

Belonging to a union means that rules governing your employment relationship are negotiated and set down in writing. If those rules are violated then there is a guaranteed method of resolving those issues that every union member has access to. This is usually done via a grievance procedure. In addition, a union also has the right to represent its members on violations of labour codes, employment standards, human rights law, etc.

3. Unions stick up for people who don't deserve to be employed

If you belong to a union, one of the reasons you pay dues is to be legally represented by your union should you be unjustly disciplined or terminated. Your union is mandated, under federal and provincial laws, to ensure that every member has access to due process and fair representation in the same way that any citizen would be entitled to legal representation if they were accused of violating the law. And just like citizens who are presumed innocent until proven guilty, union members have the right to fair representation during an employer's investigation and subsequent disciplinary action. This does not mean that union members cannot be disciplined and/or terminated if the company has just cause but it does mean that the members have a right to have their side of the story heard and properly considered. If the union investigates and finds that an employer's actions against a member was unjust or too harsh they will file a grievance on their behalf and work towards a fair resolution.

4. Unions in this country have gotten too strong and powerful
This statement is commonly put forward by many anti-union spokespersons but when closely examined it is not an accurate portrayal of reality. Why? Because the reality is that only about 30% of all workers in Canada are unionized and even those employers who are unionized are covered off by contracts that they have agreed to. There is no relation between union size and power and the incidence of strikes. In Sweden and Germany, for example, 80 to 90 per cent of all workers belong to unions, yet these countries have few strikes-mainly because of the enlightened policies of their governments.

In Canada, the majority of politicians appear to have focused on supporting the corporate agenda and their actions (and inaction) over the past 30 years have contributed greatly to the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots. Employment standards, which are supposed to defend non-unionized workers, are minimal protections indeed and are not often adhered to in any case. Workers are forced to report violations themselves because most employers are not monitored to ensure that their workers are being treated fairly.

Governments tend to deal with unions differently. They have required legal certification, formal backing from a majority of the workers they wish to represent and a long, complicated legal process before they can call a strike. Federal and provincial governments can intervene in strikes, force workers back to the job and impose a settlement. They can fine or jail workers who refuse to work.

Is the government's unbalanced approach to labour relations simply the personal view of our politicians, or can it be attributed to other influences? According to Democracy Watch - corporations are very busy lobbying Canadian politicians on a full time basis to keep their interests protected.

To learn more about corporate influence on Canadian politicians, visit the Democracy Watch website.

To see the list of Corporations who have In-House Federal Lobbyists, click here.

5. Why are Unions strike-happy?
Unions negotiate for agreements - not strikes. No union wants a strike. Strikes develop when both sides can in no other way reach an agreement. To union members, a strike means sacrifice to themselves and their families. Workers won't go on strike unless the issues involved are so great they are worth the sacrifice. Unions conduct membership votes before taking strike action and a strike occurs only after the approval of a clear majority of workers.

Most unions measure their success by the elect to which they can avoid strikes, and they do manage to settle 97 percent of contract negotiations without a strike. Despite that record, strikes are controversial and controversy makes news. This, no doubt, is why many people think strikes are the rule rather than the exception.

There's no question that strikes sometimes hurt or inconvenience innocent people. But so does almost every form of economic activity. When prices go up, that hurts. When profits are taken out of the country and invested abroad, that hurts.

Anti-union spokespeople ignore the fact that workers are people, too. All working people want is a fair payment for their labour - a fair share of the economic benefits they help to produce. Any why, when a strike occurs, blame only the workers and their unions, as if they were the only ones involved? It takes two parties to make a quarrel.

Workers join unions for different reasons. But some things are universal - a stronger voice, better working conditions, protection of your rights, fair treatment and respect.

For more information on unions please visit the Canadian Labour Congress website at:
(English) - (French)

To learn about Local 1944 structure and democratic functions, please visit this section.