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United we stand

By Kent Peacock

There is a place in India called Alang, where old ships are broken.  In this surreal wasteland hosts of labourers swarm over the hulks of obsolete oil tankers and cargo carriers, cutting them with torches into pieces small enough to be hauled away for scrap.  It is, by Canadian standards, an unbelievably dangerous place to work.  Over 400 workers are killed at Alang every year.  Sometimes their bodies are simply dumped into the sea, along with the toxic waste stripped out of the ships.  But no matter how many are killed or injured, there are always more men and women ready to try their luck in the yards.  They keep coming because their families need the money.  They have no health benefits, no vacation pay, no pension, no stock options, laughable safety equipment, little training, no funerals, no compensation or recourse if they are killed or injured — and no union.

There is nothing quite as bad as Alang in Canada, although many people here work in conditions that should be considered unacceptable.  We do enjoy the indecent spectacle of the working poor — people (often single parents) desperately holding down two or even three (non-unionized) jobs to pay the rent and keep dinner on the kitchen table for their children, while the top corporate executives who employ them are sometimes paid millions of dollars per year.  These inequities are often sanctimoniously defended by the excuse that they are mandated by the all-holy “free market,” an argument which ignores the fact that the labour market is not really free since individual workers, whether in Canada or India, rarely have as much bargaining power as their employers.

There are many reasons for the increasing rich-poor gap, such as competition from cheap off-shore labour (non-unionized, of course), and the gutting of the progressive taxation system that began in the days of Reagan and Mulroney.  But it could never have become as bad as it has without the steady weakening of the trade union movement that has also occurred in parallel with these other trends.

Many people these days are fond of saying that unions are no longer needed.  Even the most ardent union-bashers will probably concede that in the past unions fought severe abuses of workers by owners and corporations, and they might even agree that union victories led to better working conditions for everyone.  But we are now told that unions are obsolete because we can depend on our governments to protect workers’ rights.  In fact, labour laws exist in large part because unions fought so long and hard for workers’ rights that governments had no choice but to write them into law.  And those laws will not remain on the books or be enforced without the political will that flows from organized labour.

Unions can be a mixed blessing.  They can hinder efficiency and technological innovation, and a few unions have at times become so powerful and corrupt that they were no improvement over the big businesses they were supposed to protect their members from.  There is no question that unions sometimes limit the freedom of business to hire and innovate, and many small businesses could not survive if they were unionized.  On balance, however, we need strong unions more than ever.  Above all else, a union is a voice that is independent of governments and the powerful interests to which governments often pander.  In this age of the faceless multinational corporation we need independent voices with real clout. As such, unions are inherently a democratizing force.  That is why they are hated by authoritarian governments of both the right and the left.  Unions were ruthlessly crushed in the workers’ paradise of the Soviet Union, and anyone trying to start a union now in China would find themselves on a one-way trip to a gulag in a remote region of central Asia, or worse.

How about all of those fashionable sporting-goods products that everyone feels guilty about buying, since they were made by people who are paid almost nothing or who may have even been enslaved?  A few strong unions could do more for exploited workers in the Third World than any number of celebrity rock concerts.

We still need unions in Canada to counterbalance corporate power and to remind our governments that other things matter besides the bottom line — and unions are desperately needed in those parts of the world where workers are treated as if they were expendable tools.

*photo credit www.ofl.ca