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"Unions = Justice"

Janet Bagnall


28 November 2003

You can't beat Montreal's blue-collar union for timing. At the very moment they could use all the support they can get, blue-collar union members do their best to make sure the public turns against them. Did news of the Charest government's plan to undermine unions escape their attention? Was their executive out blocking drain pipes when Bill 31 was introduced, easing the way for more contract work, lower salaries and a longer work week?

Because there they were, Tuesday night, about 100 of them, spreading pig manure over the carpet of the apartment building where Georges Bossť, a member of the executive committee of the city of Montreal, lives. It's not like the union had much, or any, public sympathy to start with, but there was no point digging that hole any deeper.

In one stupid move, the blue-collar union brought disrespect to organized labour in general and to the public-sector unionized workforce in particular, thereby playing nicely into the government's hands.

As hard as it is at this moment to view the blue-collar union as a bulwark against the forces of ruthless capitalism, it is, in fact, that. (This would definitely be easier to see if its members gave up their 1960s class-warrior shtick.)

The Charest government has presented its platform of "re-engineering" the province's economic and social structures as a matter of catching up to the rest of the world, or at least to the U.S. and Ontario.

This should be a hard sell, what with the collapse of companies like Enron and Nortel and WorldCom and with the trials of captains of industry like Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco International on fraud charges. Why would any political leader of conscience want to follow in the path of Reaganomics, which prominent U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs describes as nothing less than a disaster? Why try to weaken unions, one of the distinguishing characteristics of a civilized society?

Quebecers don't have to choose between job security and economic growth. Societies with high rates of unionization, even when coupled with a generous welfare provision, can deliver strong economic performances. Norway and the Netherlands are two examples. High rates of unionization are also associated with lower income gaps.

The U.S., with one of the lowest rates of unionization, has the developed world's highest income disparity. In the U.S., top executive take-home pay was 475 times greater than the pay earned on the factory floor. In Japan, executives earn 11 times more than factory workers. In Germany, they earn 12 times as much and in Canada, 20 times as much.

Union membership has been in free-fall in the U.S., dropping from an already low 20 per cent in 1983 to barely 13 per cent in 2002. In Canada, the rate hovers around one in three workers, with Quebec highest among the provinces at about 40 per cent. These percentages pale, however, compared with Sweden's over 90 per cent and Denmark's three in four workers.

Earlier this year, the World Bank, suddenly remembering its purpose is to help eradicate poverty around the world, bent its attention to unions. In a report that analyzed more than 1,000 studies on unions, the bank found countries with a history of sophisticated collective bargaining, involving working conditions as well as wages, enjoyed less persistent unemployment, fewer and shorter strikes and less discrimination against women and indigenous people. Good co-ordination between employer and employee was found in fact to promote a better investment climate.

Highly unionized workforces also tend to produce fewer low-wage jobs. In Canada and the U.S., about one in four workers is in a low-wage job, defined as paying less that two-thirds of the median wage. But only one in eight German workers and one in 20 Swedish workers holds a low-wage job.

Collective bargaining has been a significant force for equality in Quebec - and for the gradual eradication of poverty. Yet here we are with unions and government apparently on a collision course, each trapped in an ideology that is no longer relevant. We will all suffer the consequences.


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