Why join a union?

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You don't have to go far these days to hear negative things being said about unions. Many politicians, employers and people in the media openly criticize the labour movement. They say that unions are out of touch and out of date. They also claim that unions no longer "deliver the goods" for their members.

Yet despite all these criticisms and complaints, 4 million Canadian workers proudly call themselves union members. In fact, one in every three working people in the country belong to a union. In Alberta alone, more than 300,000 people are covered by union contracts - an increase of more than 40,000 since 1996.

Why do so many people choose to belong to unions? Because it makes sense!

The truth is that Canadian unions still have an exceptional track record when it comes to improving wages and conditions for working people. The union advantage is clear to see.

A Binding Contract

The biggest thing that separates union from non-union workplaces is the collective agreement. In non-union workplaces, employees are often at the mercy of managers who play favourites and change terms and conditions of employment on a whim. But in a unionized environment, workers have written and legally-binding guarantees covering things like wages and benefits. Collective agreements give union workers rights and protections that are not available to other workers.

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Higher Wages

One of the most obvious benefits of belonging to a union is higher pay. In Canada, the average full time worker who belongs to a union earns $20.29 an hour compared to $17.22 per hour for non-unionized workers.

The difference for part-time workers is even more dramatic. Non-union part-timers earn $10.60 an hour compared to $17.31 for union workers. This means the union wage advantage for part-time workers is almost 70 percent!

Unionized part time employees also tend to work more hours per week, and when combined with higher average hourly wages, this means that weekly earnings nearly double ($343.94 versus $181.65).

Unions have also significantly closed the gender gap. Women with union representation earn an average of 89 per cent of the wages earned by men, compared to 71 per cent in non-unionized workplaces.

As Statistics Canada says, "It has long been known that unionized employees make more than non-union workers."

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Better Benefits

Union representation also means that you are more likely to have a dental and health care plan at your workplace, coverage for sickness or accidents, and a pension plan to which your employer contributes.

For example, Statistics Canada reports that 83 per cent of unionized employees are covered by either a pension plan or a group RRSP, compared to just 33 per cent of non-union workers. Unionized workers generally have better paid vacation leave than non-union employees (84 per cent compared to 65 per cent).

The same gap exists for health care benefits such as dental plan coverage (77 per cent to 45 per cent) and supplemental health care plans (84 per cent for unionized compared to 45 per cent for non-union).

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Health and Safety

Health and safety is a major concern for unions. Evidence clearly shows that unions lead to healthier and safer workplaces. A 1996 study showed that 79 per cent of unionized workplaces reported high compliance with health and safety regulations, compared to only 54 per cent of non-unionized workplaces.

Unions give workers a voice in making their workplaces safe by participating in decision making about health and safety through Joint Health and Safety Committees. Unionized workers also have access to training on health and safety. And they have support when they challenge employers about unsafe working conditions.

In cases where workers do get injured on the job, the union can help workers through the maze of Workers Compensation. Studies have shown that this support results in a higher likelihood of unionized workers receiving WCB benefits.

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Grievance Procedure

In a non-union workplace, workers are at the mercy of the boss. If an employee has a complaint related to the workplace, he or she can attempt to talk to a manager about it, but the manager doesn't have to do anything. The manager might act on the complaint, ignore it or even punish the employee for raising the issue - it all depends on the nature of the complaint, the company's labour-management philosophy or even the manager's mood on that particular day.

In a unionized workplace, on the other hand, grievances and complaints are handled in an entirely different manner. Unlike the non-union environment where the workers are basically subject to the whims of management, workers in unionized firms have a clear set of rights which are outlined in detail in their collective agreements. If the employer breaches provisions of the collective agreement - for example, if he or she fires a worker without just cause or if an employee is being harassed in some way on the job - then the worker can take defensive action through the established grievance procedure.

Union members don't have to face the boss or make their way through the red tape of labour law alone. Union shop stewards and representatives are there to support individual workers who have been treated unfairly.

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Union Services

Union members also benefit from ongoing training and educational opportunities through courses offered by their union as well as through central labour bodies such as the Alberta Federation of Labour. Union members have access to courses on health and safety, bargaining, peer counselling, literacy as well as on broader issues of globalization, racism, and equity issues.

Union members also often have access to a broad range of other support services: everything from counselling for family and personal problems to help with tax preparation to discounts and special offers negotiated with local businesses. What a particular union offers its members depends on what the members themselves want.

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Active in the Community

In addition to helping their members in the workplace, most unions and central labour bodies are also active in their communities, helping to make conditions better for working people and their families, both union and non-union. Unions individually and collectively pressure the government on issues that impact working people such as minimum wage, hours of work, health and safety regulations and other employment standards.

Unions have been at the forefront of struggles to preserve and protect health care, education and other important public services. Unions fight budget cuts and laws that help big business while eroding the quality of life in our communities. Unions support people in need by lobbying government on Employment Insurance, public pension plans, and welfare to ensure that all people have a safety net underneath them. Unions have been a key player in educating the public about the negative impacts of globalization in Canada and around the world.

Through training, support, research, information sharing and coalition work, unions help their members become active on issues that are important to them and the communities they live in.

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The Union Advantage

So does it still pay to be a union member? Clearly it does. Union members enjoy better wages, better benefits and increased job security. But the biggest benefit is the strength that comes from solidarity. Unlike non-union workers, unionized workers are not alone when they have grievances; they're not alone when they file WCB claims; and they're not alone when they raise health and safety concerns.

This is the most basic lesson of the labour movement - workers are stronger when they face management shoulder to shoulder than when they stand alone. Almost all workers have the right to form and belong to unions, and labour laws protect your right to join a union and to participate in union activities. If you are interested in learning more about organizing a union in your workplace, find out more about how to join a union.

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