Alberta Union of Provincial Employees members on strike in July 1980 in defiance of Progressive Conservative Premier Peter Lougheed’s no-strike legislation (Photo: Alberta Union of Provincial Employees).

Happy Labour Day!

Overall union membership may be shrinking, but the number of workers who wish they had a union and would vote to join one if they could appears to on the rise.

United Nurses of Alberta members picket and help a supporter during their province-wide strike in 1980 (Photo: Athabasca University Press).

This tells a compelling story about the state of the unions in North America as the last long weekend of the summer rolls around again.

In the past few decades, in Canada as in the United States, the Labour Day weekend has become an occasion on which conservative news media operations pack their pages with hysterical attacks on the right of working people to join unions and bargain their pay and working conditions together.

Here in Alberta, we’ve even seen a ridiculous effort by the United Conservative Party Government try to turn the Labour Day weekend into the Alberta Day weekend. 

Given the Orwellian zeitgeist of the past 30 years in the industrialized West, these jeremiads often use language that says the opposite of what is really meant – so, for example, denial of the right to bargain together becomes the “right to work.”

Strikers and supporters during the strike at the T. Eaton Co. department store chain’s garment factory in Toronto in 1912 (Photo: Cornell University).

Such editorializing is often accompanied by misleading “studies” by corporate-financed Astro-Turf groups and “think tanks” that purport to prove organized working people are somehow a drain on the economy.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1870s in Canada and a decade later in the United States, the first Monday of September was designated Labour Day in honour of the achievements of working people, and not incidentally those of their fraternal organizations.

Unions, of course, are just groups of working people who pool their modest individual strength to bargain with employers to ensure a fair share of the great wealth they create ends up in the hands of ordinary families.

As recent history shows, when unions are strongest, the civic and economic wellbeing of a nation improves and economic and political inequality becomes less severe. Where economic inequality becomes less severe, democracy is strengthened. 

This is particularly true at this point in history when the labour movement is increasingly inspired and carried by our union sisters, the working women of the world. So the right’s unending War on Unions is a war on women too – on women’s rights, women’s equality and women’s pay. 

Ladies Garment Workers on strike in New York City in 1910 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

But as the old labour hymn, Solidarity Forever, reminds us: “what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one … but the union makes us strong!”

No wonder the people we have come to know as The 1% want us to have no part of that!

Literally billions of dollars have been spent over the past 30 years by the globalizing internationale and the radical market-fundamentalist political parties it supports to persuade working people they don’t need unions, and governments that it’s of paramount importance to make it difficult for working people to join them.

On the legislative front, these efforts have enjoyed considerable success – particularly in the United States, where that country’s 18th Century Constitution effectively suppresses the fundamental right of working people to organize and the ability of democratically minded legislators to prevent big money from buying elections. Even when that effort falls short, as we have seen, the U.S. Constitution finds ways to ensure that losers win.

Yet while barely 10 per cent of American workers belong to a union today, half as many as did 35 years ago, union membership remains an aspiration to huge numbers of American workers.

Since the mid-teens, surveys in the United States showed that interest in joining a union is at a 40 year high. Nearly half of all non-unionized workers in the United States would join a union … if they could.

This is up from about a third in surveys in 1977 and 1995, a 2018 survey by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found.

Early this year, a poll by the Pew Research Center indicated that 58 per cent of U.S. adults believed plummeting rates of union membership in the United States over the past 30 years have been bad for the country, and 61 per cent said it was bad for working people. 

In the fall of 2021, a survey by the Gallup polling organization showed 68 per cent of Americans approved of labour unions – the highest approval rating for unions Gallup had found since 1965. Ninety per cent pf Democratic Party voters supported unions, according to that poll, and even 47 per cent of Republicans approved. 

Think about this. It’s a remarkable trend, given the efforts that have been put into making unions unappealing to workers – from the casual defamation of labour leaders as “union bosses,” to the many bogus studies that falsely conclude these democratic institutions restrict worker freedom, to the unending stream of journalistic vituperation directed at unions.

Yet it appears that despite the herculean efforts of the North American right, increasing numbers of workers are doing the math.

Perhaps this explains the string of recent organizing successes by unions in Canada and the United States at chain coffee stores like Starbucks, not to mention Amazon warehouses

Union membership numbers are better in Canada – still about 30 per cent – despite consistent and intensifying efforts by right-wing legislators especially here in Alberta to make it harder to form unions and negotiate fair contracts. Here too, though, union penetration has fallen from about 40 per cent in the early 1980s.

It is reasonable to assume a similarly growing number of Canadian working people shut out of union membership also devoutly wish they could bargain collectively.

Thankfully, our 20th Century Canadian Constitution has allowed true collective bargaining to be enshrined as a right of working people.

This is why, one supposes, media, Astro-Turfers and so-called conservatives in this country are working so hard to undermine the labour movement and to create an anti-union, market-fundamentalist dystopia.

And this is why unions must continue to use their clout to fight not just for their members, but for all working people – an effort embodied in the continuing struggle for a minimum wage that is a living wage.

As the old song says … “It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade; Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid; Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made; But the union makes us strong….”

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19 Comments

  1. It’s ironic that many of the same people who oppose the right of workers to organize are only too happy to shelter behind the Corporations Act.

  2. Thx David. It’s too true that only by standing together can individual workers defend themselves from the depredations of the powerful corporate ownership and their management cadre. Make no mistake, the managerial elite, the ‘C-suite’, have no one’s interest but their own. So the labour component, the workers are all too often left out of consideration, except as an expense.

    We’ve had over 40 years of painting the workforce, you and me and your neighbours, as leeches and a drag on the economy while the corporate owner is shown as a heroic savior, carving out wealth for all through his unceasing persistence of overcoming government interference. Nothing could be farther from the truth, literally; the truth is the exact opposite.
    Unfortunately, too many union rank and file members buy into this bullshit and are eroding solidarity and cohesiveness from within. Very prevalent in Alberta.

    We will soon find out that the solutions to all our social woes, like crumbling infrastructure, like failing health-care systems, like inflation, indeed, like climate change, all are basically our collective common wealth, will all come about only through the efforts of collective groups of workers and communities pushing back against the GREEDY DESIRES OF INDIVIDUAL CORPORATE OWNERS.

  3. True story, print it or don’t: my mom worked in a grocery store. After union dues, she made just under minimum wage. The store accused her of stealing, and the union did nothing to help her and she was fired. So, personally, I hate unions. The small time unions steal from the poor, and the big time unions protect bad cops and teachers. I know SOME unions must do good, right? Again, I know you likely wont post this, but I dont care. Canada is EXTREMELY broken and unions are at least partly to blame.

    1. Unions Are Crooked: If you enjoy weekends off, having a minimum wage, and other employee benefits, you can thank a union for that. Blame individuals for being crooked, not unions. If the UCP had their way, unions wouldn’t exist, and Alberta would be going backwards to a regressive state, and it would only get worse.

  4. The so called “Quiet Quitting”movement has gained considerable momentum, so it may not be some fashionable trend that CEOs hope will die out. I video making the rounds lately shows tanked shark, Kevin O’Leary, mocking the movement by saying something along the lines of grow-up: nobodies going to hand you your bonuses without super-human efforts from you. This is pretty rich coming from someone who skipped out on his CPC leadership bid and left a nice $500K in his wake. Hey, Kevin? Nobody was going to hand you the leadership either.

    But what is a poor CEO to do these days? Jump off a building? Some have but that’s not going to change workers who realize they have being robbed of their personal time by grifting employers.

    Jason Kenney and the CPC may have pushed things too far when they handed out those lavish corporate tax cuts, while everyone else had to bear the debts. Though Jason Kenney is strutting around and showing off the oil boomlet’s surprise surplus as proof that he was really chosen by Jesus to lead Alberta, the end times are unfolding as everyone should have expected. The voters are in the streets with their pitchforks everywhere and demanding their lives back.

    1. Just: What ARE all those CEOs jumping out of windows? When this happens in Russia, it’s Putin’s thugs who are doing the pushing, we’re always told. When it happens in the West, it’s just suicide, never mind the scratches, bruises and thread under their fingernails! What’s going on? DJC

      1. The CFO (not a CEO but close enough) did his own personal swan dive off the so-called Jenga Town over a scandal involving his company Bed Bath & Beyond. Claims are somewhat muted but the whispered consensus is he falsified financial records and other reports to secure credit facilities for the company and it’s various officers. And there’s that pump n’ dump scheme the SEC had the goods on. You could say his golden parachute was somewhat inadequate.

  5. A few years ago I met a fellow who told me he really hated unions. It was incredibly ironic, really, since he owned a hot tub business. Can you think of any kind of business that would be more dependent on an affluent middle class, like what exists because of unions?

    1. Bob: This is a very important point. It is beyond bizarre that small business owners in Alberta and Canada don’t seem to get this – presumably because of the propaganda silo in which they have embedded themselves. The middle class spends most of their money at home on domestically produced goods and services. The wealthy spend more abroad and on foreign produced good and services. The extremely wealthy bank the stuff and ship it offshore. DJC

  6. Rumor has it (from the staff who work there and have been told by their customers) that people go out of their way to buy their coffee at the unionized Starbucks locations, where they exist. Who knew that unionization helped both the workers and the company?

  7. What Canada and the US have done is off shore the private sector union jobs. You would think that the NDP (in Canada) and the Democrats (in the US) would support their blue collar constituents, but that hasn’t been what happened.

    1. “Mike”: the NDP has always opposed those so-called “free trade” agreements that are responsible for offshoring good unionized jobs. But it has never been in government at the federal level, so has never been in a position to abrogate thise agreements. All it has been able to do is pressure the government of the day, like the Trudeau Liberals during the recent Trump administration, to prioritize Canadian workers’ interests in negotiations to update those agreements.

    2. Unsure what the NDP could have done about it – FPTP system exists to disenfranchise the majority of voters and drastically limit the agency of any national political party that isn’t the Liberals or Conservatives (and very effectively accomplishes both goals). It has often seemed to me, as a person who has never cast a ballot that elected someone, that Canada’s commitment to democracy is just as real as Alex Jones’ commitment to journalistic integrity.

      In America things are even worse – Corporations are people, money is speech, and limiting the ability of “people” to “speak” is against the 1st Amendment – and that was decided by a comparatively “rational” and “nonpartisan” Supreme Court. Democrats and Republicans alike are wholly owned subsidiaries of the exact same billionaires and megacorporations. God only knows how they’re going to clean that mess up.

  8. I find it interesting that police unions are always exempt from so-called “right to work” laws. Not only does this prove the lie of “right to work” laws, it exposes the terror that politicians feel from police unions and their sleazy tactics.

  9. Union busting is the assumed purview of conservatism, that ancient political philosophy which begat perpetual propertied preponderance, its enduring contribution to, and bulwark against subjects who would liberate themselves from heritable elitism and champion the worst of all governing systems—except for all the others—democracy.

    It’s no coincidence that when unions are at lower ebb, so too is democracy simply because , although the worker gets cher income by wage-earning while the wealthy get theirs from profit from, in addition to capitalization of property and inheritance, wage-earning workers, they are both entitled to vote for our parliaments and governments.

    Post-thraldom, ‘t was always thus. As Nikiforuk explains in his Energy of Slaves, all forms of unpaid servitude—thraldom, slavery, indenture, chattel slavery, and even mechanization have felled history’s most powerful regimes as surely as addictive petroleum energy will inevitably fell globalization in our own era. Insofar democracy, even in its most limited application, contributed something to ending unpaid and unsafe labour, it’s been remarkably powerful itself. Yet the single vote is almost nothing.

    After a 40-year spate of high info-tech neoliberal globalization in the interest of stateless corporatocracy, 20 years of promising “trickledown” followed by 20 more of discreditation when it never happened (much the opposite, in fact) illustrate the neo-right’s new strategy of undermining organized labour by way of undermining the most effective bulwark against stateless oligo-plutocracy: national sovereignty, and especially those nations with democratically elected governments.

    The neo-right almost thought it had won when the Cold War bogeyman and even history itself was ended; but now in its throes, it seeks to shorten the two sword-lengths of respect between political parties in freely elected parliaments. Perversely, it does so in the name of freedom and rights while in history’s most powerful democracy it slashes at the very tissue, ligaments, and bones of electoral principle and practice.

    But the meek—and worst-except-all-others—has already, time and again, inherited the earth, and the gathering wave of unionization—apropos after nearly three years of Covid, drastic economic disruption, attendant inflation on the rebound, shortages of all kinds of workers, and a kind of renaissance not far distant from post-Bubonic Plague Europe (cf 1381). (“Sire, the peasants are revolting!”
    “Boy!—you sure got that right: they’re revolting as hell!”)

    The cult and illusion of the vaunted individual , the feral man, Homo gulo, seeks first to isolate the citizen in cher own funk and self(ish)-loathing , and then muster anger to protect the cult—tRumpublicanism, American or Canadian or Brazilian or “Excelsior!”—and foment a “culture war” which is really an occult skunk war painted into its own corner.

    Today is Labour Day, probably the only day when citizens are the least bit concerned with the power of the wage-earning faction which by enterprises public and private and the gift of natural resource is the human foundation of our nation and world. For some it concerns the theoretical over-elaboration of the True Believer (as always, qv Eric Hoffer), but for most (as all surveys show) it is altogether instinctive: in times as challenging as they are now, the majority look to our governments for help, not to blame but to realize the fact that it is us. As Pogo reconnoitred from his punt, it could be us, the enemy—our own— but it doesn’t take a Picketty to dismiss this attitude.

    Yet it does take a moment—perhaps this Day, perhaps any day—to appreciate the fundament of labour unions which, through their own democratic practice, have successfully met so many big challenges and set the standard for all citizens , unionized or not, wage-earners or not.

    As my beloved, kindhearted, card-carrying Prairie communist father-in-law used to say: “money’s good, rich or poor.” And when asked what to do about this or that challenge facing our nation and world, he mustered his experiences defending our country at and democracy in WW II in a single word: “Organize.” The man read a book a day almost to his last—and I always admired his pith and truth, of which the simplest is the best.

    Thank you for this piece, David.

    Have a prosperous and safe Labour Day—and every day, my friends.

    1. I believe that Homo gulo translates, not as “feral man”, but as “gluttonous man”.
      Perhaps more fitting for the population you’re thinking of.

      1. It’s a mashup of H. sapiens (or “wise human” —definitely not an accurate description of the population I’m thinking of) and Gulo gulo, or wolverine (mislabeled twice as gluttonous).

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