Enjoying Your Weekend? Thank the Union

Vivian McCaffrey

Buffeted by adverse political winds, strong unions  still have impact.

ETFO members have spent the last year standing up for the right to engage in free collective bargaining. In the process, we experienced some  rude awakenings: a Liberal government that betrayed a decade-long relationship with education professionals and a growing bias against unions. The broader context of  this experience helps us to both better understand the anti-union sentiment and fight against it.

Economic context

On the economic front, the 2008 financial crisis on Wall Street caused reverberations around the globe. In Ontario, it resulted in heavy  manufacturing job losses and a steep decline in income tax revenue. The loss of these  middle-class  union  jobs  contributed to the widening income gap. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports that between 1980 and 2009 pre-tax incomes of the top 20% of  income earners in Canada grew by 38.4%, while the middle 20% fell by 0.3% and the bottom 20% fell by 11.4%. A recent Conference Board report gives Canada a “C” grade for ranking 12th among 17 OECD nations in income inequality. The concentration of wealth and political power is  driving the policy on tax cuts, expenditure cuts, and attacks on unions.

Tax Policy

Ontario fiscal policy is unbalanced. Tax cuts in place since the Harris government have reduced revenue by close to $16 billion annually, an amount higher than the current deficit. In confronting the deficit, the Liberal government did not look to tapping into unprecedented corporate profits or addressing relatively flat  taxation rates that benefit the highest  earners.  Instead,  it  commissioned banker Don Drummond to examine the expenditure side of Ontario’s finances. It was no surprise that the Drummond Report targeted cuts to public sector jobs, public sector benefits, and programs such as full-day kindergarten and class size. Nor was it a coincidence that the government released the report the same day it summoned the education unions to the  ill-fated Provincial Discussion Table. The report was crassly used to give the government the upper hand in establishing the psychology for the “negotiations”.

Declining Rates of Unionization

In the mid-1950s, before widespread unionization  in  the  public  sector,  unionization in both Canada and the United States  was about 34%. Today, in Canada, the unionization rate is down to 31.2% (17.9% in the private sector and 74.2% in the public sector). In the United States, the overall unionization rate is a meagre 11.3% (6.6% in the private sector and 35.9% in the public sector). Right-wing politicians and ideologues claim unions are barriers to economic development and are  being  made  obsolete  by  globalization and  technological  change.  This  argument ignores the high rates of unionization in social democratic nations with relatively strong economies such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. (These countries also have


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