Rebuilding Union Density

May 17, 2011, 4:10 PM EST

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What exactly derailed the post-war wave of progress for workers, also known as the social contract? This question was posed to a four-person panel in an effort to not only arrive at what went wrong, but also how to move forward for a more inclusive, more just society where the right to good working conditions and a high quality of life for all are the norm.

In the post-World War II era spanning into the 70s, there was a common understanding of the importance of creating conditions conducive to improving the situation for each new generation, said CLC President Ken Georgetti in his introduction to the panel on May 10.

The panel, moderated by the CBC's Wendy Mesley, featured CAW Economist Jim Stanford, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Armine Yalnizyan, Ryerson University professor and author Grace-Edward Galabuzi and Economist for the Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-économiques (IRIS) Pierre-Antoine Harvey.

Stanford said that the so-called "social contract" was never actually signed by employers, they were only forced into it for a while.

The economy was doing well, private business was strong, labour laws were favourable to unionization after several important struggles by unions -the introduction of the Rand formula and card check certification in many jurisdictions, explained Stanford. "Workers had high expectations and the ability to meet those expectations."

Galabuzi pointed out that the labour market wasn't rosy for all groups of workers, particularly workers of colour and aboriginal people who habitually experienced much higher unemployment rates -always the last hired and first fired.

Similarly, Yalnizyan warned that it's a mistake to want to return to the time of the social contract, instead she suggested returning to a period 100 years ago at the advent of the women's movement, civil rights movement and labour organizing in Canada -a time when people were desiring greater equality on many fronts. She suggested that today conditions are very similar with growing globalization, inequality, and the mass movement from the countryside into the city.

She spoke about how this desire for equality and fair conditions was the driving momentum of numerous actions on the other side of the world, whereas here in Canada, we're wondering how we're going to hang on to what we have. "We must channel the benefits of globalization to give them a globalization they've never dreamed of."

The decades that followed the post-war boom though, through out the 1980s and 90s, were characterized by a rise in corporate power and increasing globalization. Companies could relocate their operations to other countries with little, if any consequence, no longer constrained by national boundaries, regulations or government intervention.

Stanford stressed that the decline in our collective quality of life was not part of some natural evolution, but a series of conscious efforts by a neoliberal agenda endorsed by wealthy corporations and governments -including the destabilizing of many important social safety nets and the end of full employment.  

By the 1990s, workers were less likely to show up at their jobs ready to fight for their rights.  "We shouldn't have to bend down and be thankful that we have a job," said Stanford. "Workers deserve to be paid for the work that we do and be treated fairly."

Galabuzi said the revitalization of the role of organized labour will require a community-based approach to union organizing, one that goes beyond the workplace. He said that in the post-war period, unions shifted into an economic form of unionism, but that in order to regain and expand their public role, they must advocate for Canadians and marginalized groups beyond just their own members.

Galabuzi suggested that it's the role of unions to address the issues of temporary foreign workers and push for them to be allowed into Canada as permanent residents.

Stanford said that unions and workers more generally should not lose hope of the strength of the collective. "Without the labour of our members, the system would be no-where. 


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