We’ve been discussing perspectives on unions, markets, and governments in my courses this week. I noted that, in recent years, there has been a backlash against unions and collective bargaining in the media and in corporate North America. This article in the UK Guardian talks about how American media and commentators have blamed unions for the recent Great Recession, despite an absence of evidence that the problems were due to unions at all. Here is a good piece from The New Yorker talking about how non-union workers “envy” the wages, pensions, and benefits of union members, but respond to this envy with anger at unions rather than by joining unions themselves. This commentary by Andrew Jackson here in Canada notes some hysterical comments by Kevin O’Leary, a Canadian entrepreneur on the public broadcaster CBC. Here is what O’Leary says:
“we still have the problems of unions in many sectors, particularly in the automotive—we didn’t take advantage of the meltdown, the financial meltdown to actually crush the unions when we could have. I think unionism is the dearth of business. It’s a huge uncompetitive advantage (sic), and it just forces capital to go to countries that doesn’t (sic) have unions, because it’s very inefficient, and that’s what’s important. I think globalization has some benefits. You may complain that, gee, jobs are leaving North America or Canada because they can go to lower cost places, but it’s not just the employment rate, it’s the terms under which you engage employees. So if you don’t have to deal with unions, that’s even better. That’s the one area I think we have more work to do. In the government sector, we’d love to get rid of unions, automotive sector—get rid of unions. Just get rid of unions everywhere. They add no value whatsoever. It’s one of my big causes—I love to get out there and union bash, and you know, frankly, I think it’s a good thing.”
Of course, O’Leary wants to get rid of unions. His favorite slogan is “greed is good”. If you are a greedy entrepreneur, you won’t like unions, because they take money from CEOs and give it to workers. We know empirically that CEO salaries are lower at unionized workplaces, and that countries with strong unions have less income inequality and poverty. But why should we (society) care what O’Leary thinks? Never trust someone whose policy solutions always favour themselves. The bigger question is whether unions are good or bad for society overall, not for people like O’Leary.
Jackson wonders how people are getting away with arguing in public–here on a government owned station–that unions should be abolished. He points out that the right to join a union is a fundamental, internationally recognized human right. What does he mean by that?
Well, after World War II, the victorious Western nations came together to discuss how to prevent future wars. It was a moment of sober thought. They all agreed–and Canada was an important player in this discussion–that it was necessary to put in place a system in which wealth is reasonably distributed throughout society and people feel engaged in their society. The goal was to avoid economic and social alienation, which leaders believed plant the seeds for revolutions, dictatorships, and social upheaval that lead to wars. The world’s leaders, back in the late 1940s, all agreed that an important element of the strategy to develop world peace was to ensure a strong labour movement, since unions facilitate both wealth distribution and worker “voice” that facilitates democracy. Out of that discussion and time came a variety of important international human rights instruments, that Canada has agreed to.
One was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document listed a set of rights which are “inalienable”, meaning they are available to all humans and can’t be taken away. The document opens with this sentence:
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law… Now, therefore .. all nations…shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures … to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance…among the peoples of Member States…
So, to prevent rebellions, it is necessary for Canada and every other country to protect the following fundamental, inalienable human rights. What rights?
Well, Article 4 says right not to be enslaved. Article 5 prohibits torture. Article 9 says you have a right not to be arbitrarily arrested or detained. Article 11 says you have a right to presumed innocent until an independent public trial finds you guilty. Article 17 says you have a right to own property. Article 18 says you have a right to freedom of religion, Article 19 says you freedom of expression. You agree that all these rights are pretty important so far?
Then, in Article 23, we see that “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests”. There you have it. In the list of core rights necessary to protect the world from future wars, and to ensure prosperity, the world’s leaders all agreed that unions and collective bargaining were key.
The need to protect unions and collective bargaining in order to prevent social unrest was recognized in other major international human rights instruments. In the Declaration of Philadelphia (1944), which became part of the Constitution of the International Labour Organization, world leaders agreed:
And whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required… and whereas the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries;
The ILO followed this Declaration by passing a number of core Conventions protecting trade union rights, including Convention 87, which Canada has ratified. That Convention requires Canada to ensure that all workers “without distinction whatever” have the right to form and join unions. There is no dispute that the right to join a union and engage in collective bargaining are fundamental human rights that Canada is legally required to protect.
These are rights that are equivalent to the right not to be tortured, arbitrarily imprisoned, discriminated against on the basis of sex or race. Imagine then, asks Jackson, how we would respond if instead of arguing that we should “just get rid of unions”, he argued we should “just get rid of limitations on torture, racial discrimination, and arbitrary imprisonment?” Would we be more likely to object to that?
People like O’Leary would like this little historical note to go away because unions interfere with their personal greed. But the very reason the world’s leaders included unions and collective bargaining was because they understood that unions are necessary to provide a check on governments and capitalists like O’Leary, who might through the pursuit of their own lust for money and/or power forget about the overriding need to combat social and economic exclusion and alienation.
Do you think the concerns of world leaders following World War Two, about the need to encourage unions and collective bargaining to protect against economic and social alienation are no longer relevant? Do you agree with O’Leary’s argument that Canada should do away with unions?