President's Commentary: Unions at the heart of democracy

We need to use our power to shape our country and our government so it acts for the common good of the many, not for the chosen few.

by Larry Brown, NUPGE President

Just a few weeks ago, we held our 18th Convention in Winnipeg.

There is something inspiring about being at a union Convention.

Bringing people together from across the country, from different workplaces, communities, backgrounds and beliefs to discuss, debate, and yes, sometimes even to argue over important matters. 

We agree to respect each other and follow a fair process to achieve our goals. We don’t let the loudest voice drown out the smallest and most vulnerable. We vote and then move forward united for having participated in these decisions.

This is democracy in action.

For decades, union democracy was the training ground for civil society. It was where working people learned how to practice democracy. And it changed our world.

From workplaces, to schools, to town halls, and into almost every aspect of our civic lives — Canada became more democratic. Never perfect — but improving.

Our meeting in Winnipeg was inspiring for another reason.

We met on the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike. That strike was a moment in history where union and non-union workers, women and men, dropped their tools to speak out about their poor wages, terrible working conditions, and the right to bargain collectively.

It was a deliberate act of defiance to influence business bosses and government leaders who were taking working people for granted. The strike shook those men in power to the core, showing the power of people working together for fairness, equality and change.

People saw it as a civic duty to fight for the rights of others, and to make life better for all of society. Many risked their jobs, and their lives, to turn out for the strike. And 2 strikers were killed at the hands of the government agents.

Many say the strike failed when the federal government gave workers 2 choices: go back to work, or lose your job. Some of the leaders were arrested.

But what happened in its wake changed the country forever.

The strike showed the power of workers unity in the face of the attempts to divide them against each other.

There was a wave of unionism and militancy that continued across the country. Because of the actions of those strikers, new labour laws were enacted. Health and safety legislation was created. Workers eventually won the right to organize and the right to strike.

How can all that be seen as a failure?

Fast forward to now. 100 years later, we’ve watched governments — federally and provincially — order workers back to the job instead of negotiating fair collective agreements. 

Once again immigrants are used as a convenient target even though our society and our economy would both be poorer without immigration.  Governments still blame special interests and even “socialists” for any protest, as they did in Winnipeg.

Employers and governments violate our collective agreements, forcing unions to court to uphold workers’ rights. They scheme and manoeuver – and legislate – to make it harder to organize and to try to block our ability to bargain good wages, benefits and a safe work environment. They implement low-wage strategies while reaping in millions for our hard work.

And around the world, where we see a decline in union density, we see a weakening of basic democracy.

But, despite these challenges, the labour movement is relentless because we know that unions and democracy go hand in hand.

Unions strengthen democracy by demanding better social, economic, and environmental policies through various forms of political action and in coalition with others who have common aims.

Unions strengthen democracy by fighting for greater political accountability. It is no coincidence that in countries where there are free and active trade union movements, there are more democratic, transparent, and representative forms of government.

Studies show that union strength also leads to greater economic equality, which is another important ingredient for a healthy and strong democracy.

In those countries where there is no independent union movement, or where the movement is vulnerable, the vast majority of citizens continue to be frozen out of any share in economic gains, as the 1% hoard almost all those gains for themselves. It is in these conditions that instability and extremism thrive at the expense of democracy.

And studies show that unions have a direct positive effect on elections. In countries where there are strong unions, voter turnout is greater, from the working class and especially among vulnerable and marginalized groups, such as those living in poverty, visible minorities and racialized groups.

So, as we head into another federal election, and beyond, we need to remember that we are not powerless. We need to use our power to shape our country and our government so it acts for the common good of the many, not for the chosen few. As history shows us, we make a difference, for our members and for everyone.