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Hitting the Road with a Message

Hitting the road with a message

Text and Photos by Rusty Deluce

Is the middle class done for? What role can unions play in creating a strong, stable economy? These were some of the questions addressed by Why Unions Still Matter, a roadshow presentation developed by the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University in conjunction with IATSE Canada. On a Western road swing that included stops in Campbell River and Victoria, the show rolled its way into Vancouver on June 2nd at the PAL Studio Theatre. Led by Professor Wayne Lewchuk, this free, public and Canadian version of the American roadshow series was first unveiled in Hamilton on June 19th 2014. Since then, they’ve been hitting road with their message- unions matter. A lot.

Following an introduction by John Lewis, International VP and Director of Canadian Affairs, Professor Lewchuk engaged the capacity evening audience with an informal poll. How are we faring now with income distribution, job availability and employment security compared to twenty years ago? Any doubts were laid to rest as the next slide flashed on the screen. A graph of income distribution in Canada from 1920-2010 showed a dramatic surge in the income share of the top 1% during the last two decades. By 2007, a full 14% of all income in Canada was earned by the top one-percenters. Thus effectively wiping out all the gains earned by the middle class in the post World War II period.

Next up on the agenda was a birds-eye-view of the Canadian labour movement. Lewchuk divided the movement into periods, starting from its Roots (1872-1935), to the Golden Era (1935-1978) and finally with Employers Regain[ing] the Upper Hand (post 1978). With a rich mixture of period photography, artwork, newspaper clippings, historical charters, posters, banners and music, Lewchuk brought each period to vivid life while narrating a compelling saga of workers struggling for their rights

When deplorable turn-of-the-century sweatshop conditions first sparked workers to organize, employers resisted with a heavy hand resorting to union busting, strike breaking, arrests and bloody violence. It soon became clear that individual workers lacked the power that unions could create through solidarity. From the turmoil of the early union efforts, two distinct approaches emerged. On the one hand, organize by occupation (craft unions) using their skills and knowledge as bargaining leverage, or organize by industry. Thus IATSE was forged as a craft union of stagehands in New York in 1893. It has since evolved into an industrial union with a current international membership of 122,859 of which 16,736 reside in Canada. Throughout the Roots period, unions won some legal rights (including limited bargaining) and IATSE was an important part of that struggle.

During the Golden Era, Lewchuk noted the growth of workers rights with such U.S.landmarks as the New Deal and Wagner Act (1935). President Franklin Roosevelt who passed both acts defended them as ‘Just to Labor’. A full decade later a similar Canadian milestone was achieved with the Order in Council P.C. 1003 granting Canadian workers collective bargaining rights. This recognition came at a price, establishing penalties for unions whose members went on wildcat strikes with the intent to usher in an era of “responsible” unionism. Although employers still resisted unions they were now limited in their means to oppose them.

Following a break, Professor Lewchuk examined the post 1978 period that saw a pronounced political shift with the election of Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney to national office. By the 1980s, the Neoliberalism movement was fixed on creating business-friendly conditions by blaming workers and unions for the inability of corporations to compete internationally. This attack on workers rights resulted in reduced taxes for the rich and corporations, deregulation, privatization, free trade and an upswing in corporate rights. Then there was the promise of more-for-everyone through globalization with the Free Trade Agreement (1989) and NAFTA in 1994. “But is it working?” Lewchuk challenged. Employment has in fact become less secure with unpredictable hours and only 60% of workers aged 25-65 in large Canadian cities enjoying secure jobs. This precarious work makes it difficult to plan for the future, start a family and afford a good standard of living. The stress of uncertain employment is also linked to poor health. Canadian government attacks on the right to bargain and collective rights have resulted in back-to-work legislation and onerous Bills limiting public sector bargaining. Even the unemployed have come under attack with the tighter restrictions of Bill C-38 (2012) requiring them to accept lower paying jobs and drive 75 km to search for work. Barely 40% of those unemployed are eligible for benefits.

Lewchuk contends that it is workers who are paying for the recent economic crisis. One that was caused by unregulated financial markets and corporate greed. So how has IATSE fared?  Membership has actually grown during a difficult period from 75,000 in 1993 to over 115,000 today. IATSE’s experience of renewal and growth is different because it provides support and service to existing freelance and contract workers through pensions, benefit plans and training. There are framework agreements in place for minimum working conditions that allow its workers to bargain for more. Members enjoy flexible retirement plans (CEIRP) as well as health benefits under nationalized plans. For Lewchuk IATSE has become the model for future union organizing and applauded its Training Trust, Labour Education Assistance Program (LEAP), Young Workers Committee and Officer Institute.

In conclusion, Lewchuk noted that when unions are strong and workers fight for their rights everyone is better off. Although IATSE has made real gains they need to be defended. Workers have always had to struggle for social justice. Government will respond to the demands of organized labour only if workers are active in the movement. Change is still possible suggested Lewchuk pointing to the recent Quebec student protests.

After distilling 150 years of Canadian labour history into an informative, eye-opening and entertaining two-hour presentation, Professor Lewchuk stayed on schedule as promised. He ended his ‘Why Unions Matter’ roadshow with a final PowerPoint screen slide that simply read: “Together Fairness Works”. It’s a powerful message- a message that resonates with every union member past, present and future.

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