Labour rights, inequality and democracy

By Bernie Froese-Germain
October 25, 2013
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Canada’s reputation as an international advocate for human rights has become tarnished in recent years.

Increasingly we are seeing media articles or reports that make statements similar to this – “After years of demonstrating strong leadership on the international stage in terms of promoting and advancing [insert the human right of your choice here], sadly Canada has taken another step backward…”

Labour rights are no exception.

Over the past three decades, we have witnessed a significant erosion of labour rights in this country. According to a recent report by the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights (CFLR), “between 1982 and 2012, there have been 200 restrictive labour laws passed by the federal and provincial governments.” (Sran et al., 2013, p. 29) This is unprecedented in the history of Canadian labour relations.

Examples include back-to-work legislation, suspension of workers’ bargaining rights and imposed wage freezes or rollbacks, restrictions on unions’ ability to organize, and restrictions on the scope of bargaining and other union activities.

The attack on labour rights has intensified in the financial crisis-driven climate of fiscal austerity. Bill C-377 which passed in the House of Commons in Dec. 2012 is a recent manifestation of the attack on unions and labour rights. The CFLR notes that Bill C-377 “imposes strict and excessive financial reporting measures on unions that will add costs and time-consuming administrative requirements to their normal activities.” (Sran et al., 2013, p. 34) It is also discriminatory as it does not apply to employer bargaining associations or other professional associations that collect dues from their members. After being blocked by the Conservative-dominated Senate in June, the amended Bill was sent back to the House of Commons. Bill C-525, another anti-union Private Member’s Bill with the misleading title, Employees’ Voting Rights Act, is described by the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) as being “designed to bust unions in the federal sector.”

Some see Bill C-377 as setting the stage for ultimately eliminating the Rand formula and importing right-to-work legislation into Canada from the U.S. About two dozen states have instituted right-to-work laws, most recently in Michigan. Federal Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre is strongly advocating what he calls “workers freedom” legislation which would give federal government employees the option of paying union dues. Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak is also pushing for RTW-type laws.

In Right-to-Work states, workers’ wages are an estimated $1,500 less annually (prompting some such as US President Obama to describe the laws as “right to earn less”) and workers are less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance or pension plans than workers in states which don’t have these laws.

As union density in Canada has decreased over the years, it is no coincidence that income inequality has worsened. The Conference Board of Canada reports that income inequality has increased over the past 20 years, noting that “since 1990, the richest group of Canadians has increased its share of total national income, while the poorest and middle-income groups have lost share.”

Of course tackling inequality is not only a moral issue. There is growing international recognition that income inequality can hurt the economy. Divided societies also have more social problems with associated costs. Citing research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (authors of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger) the CFLR states that,

More unequal societies tend to produce greater levels of social dysfunction, they commonly exhibit more crime, higher levels of mental illness, more illiteracy, lower life expectancies, higher rates of incarceration, lower degrees of civic engagement, higher teenage pregnancy rates, diminished social mobility and opportunities, lower levels of interpersonal trust, lower levels of general health, and weaker social shock absorbers for the poor. (Sran et al., 2013, p. 9)

In other words, more equal societies (less divided societies) are overall healthier societies and as such, reducing inequality is just good public policy. Among the 23 wealthy countries studied by Wilkinson and Pickett, Japan, Finland and the other Scandinavian countries are the most equal nations while the U.S. and the U.K. are the most unequal.

The labour movement often touts the traditional union advantage as better wages and benefits, and decent working conditions. Another face of the union advantage is that it helps to keep income inequality in check.

The message is quite clear – growing income inequality is bad for the economy, contributes to numerous social problems, and can be reduced through among other measures progressive labour law reform.

Unions protect and advance the interests of their members and of society as a whole. When considering the critical role of the labour movement in Canadian society, we need to ask ourselves some simple questions:

  • What would the middle class look like without unions? Or perhaps more to the point, would there even be a middle class in the absence of unions?
  • What would our social safety net look like without unions?
  • What would our public education system look like without unions?
  • What would our democracy look like without unions?

Indeed the success of public education is built on a high quality teaching profession supported by strong teacher unions. Educational improvements negotiated through the collective bargaining process are substantial. They include services for students with special needs, ESL programs, reductions in primary class size, ratios for teacher-librarians based on school size, teacher preparation time, professional development days, mentorship programs, and equity in education initiatives (Salutin, 2012, pp. 61-62). No doubt we could add to this list many more union-initiated changes that are beneficial for student learning.

When teachers stand up for their collective bargaining and other labour rights (for example as they did last year in Ontario to oppose anti-labour legislation Bill 115), they are putting into practice the lessons in democracy they teach their students every day – the importance of fighting for hard-won democratic rights and freedoms and of being active responsible citizens in a democratic society.

Teachers’ ability to exercise their fundamental labour rights is integral to the achievement of quality public education.


Conference Board of Canada (2013). How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada. Ottawa.

NUPGE (June 7, 2013). “Conservative MP introduces union-busting legislation.” News release.

Salutin, Rick (2012). Keeping the Public in Public Education. Linda Leith Publishing.

Sran, Garry, et al. (March 2013). Unions Matter: How the Ability of Labour Unions to Reduce Income Inequality and Influence Public Policy has been affected by Regressive Labour Laws. Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights. Ottawa.


Note: This article is adapted from a longer paper on the topic published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation in July 2013.


Bernie Froese-Germain is a Researcher with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

Canadian Teachers’ Federation
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