Robyn Benson, PSAC

Dare to dream

“It’s not just a question of being a big union. It’s big ideas…It’s about engaging people. It’s about engaging our members…but it’s also about outreach to the community.” ~UNIFOR President Jerry Dias


I was fortunate enough to spend part of the Labour Day weekend at the UNIFOR founding Convention, watching history being made. Two major industrial unions, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP), formally merged into one 300,000-member strong union. It was an inspiring event, and I was energized by the atmosphere in the hall as convention delegates spoke of the hope and strength that their new union would bring to workers across Canada. Afterwards, they headed away to a great public concert to celebrate what they had just achieved. And the following day they joined a spectacular Labour Day parade to top it off.

The nervous naysayers from the corporate media were quickly heard from, which should be worn as a badge of honour. Chris Selley’s sneering commentary in the National Post is just one example.

The low-wage service sector—a key target of UNIFOR—has been expanding for decades, and is now one in which three out of four Canadians are employed. It remains largely non-union, although beachheads are being established, and, certainly in the US, unrest is growing. But at present, the sector overall, particularly food and retail, is a swamp of cheap labour. Selley says it is “bloody silly” to point out that unions have never been more necessary or important, but the low-paid workers in this area might beg to differ. I say, what a bloody silly comment.

Then let’s look at real hourly wages over the past few years. Here’s a relevant if gender-based figure: “From 1981 to 2011, average hourly wages increased by 17% among men aged 45 to 54, but increased by only 1% among men aged 25 to 34.” Given that teenagers in the food and retail areas are now being displaced by older workers in that age range, the 1% increase in thirty years sure seems stagnant to me. Indeed, so does the 17% increase, given that the rise in the GDP per capita (the total amount of wealth in the country divided by the population) during nearly the same period (1981-2011) was 46.3%. The average Joe and Jane aren’t getting anywhere near their fair share of that growth (see p. vi in the link).

Median income has risen in Canada, but not so’s you’d really notice. As pointed out in a Conference Board of Canada paper, the increase amounts to a total of 5.5% in 33 years—“going nowhere” about covers it. That’s over more than a generation and a half, by the way.

As for inequality, a more recent Conference Board study states bluntly:

Income inequality in Canada has increased over the past 20 years. [1990-2010]

Since 1990, the richest group of Canadians has increased its share of total national income, while the poorest and middle-income groups has lost share.

So, along comes UNIFOR, with an organizing outlook, a fightback attitude—and nearly a third of a million members. It will be a force to be reckoned with, joining sister unions who have been organizing in the service sector, like SEIU and UFCW. And its promised outreach to the community will certainly help to build more bridges between labour and the general public. “UNIFOR,” said outgoing CAW President Ken Lewenza, “is not just a union—it is a social movement!”

That’s promising stuff, and this brand-new union will be a welcome ally in the wider social movement that many of us have been busy building across the country. Dias has his work cut out for him, and he’s eager to get to it. He’s too long in the tooth to pay any attention to his corporate media critics, or take their helpful advice, and he says he’s “pumped” for the huge tasks ahead. “Companies are doing much better now and there are no justifiable reasons why wages and benefits should remain stagnant. We’ve been playing defence too long, it’s time to go on offence,” he says.

He’s got that right: it’s high time for us all to move forward, and by “us” I mean Canadian working people, union and (as yet) non-union. Solidarity, Brother: it’ll be a pleasure working with you. The next few years are going to be one heck of a ride.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on September 6, 2013 9:10 AM.

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