EDMONTON - The last Labour Day of the 20th century provides us with a unique opportunity to reflect upon all the positive contributions that the labour movement has made to our province over the past 100 years, says Audrey Cormack, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour. It also gives us a chance to begin planning for a new century of workplace activism, she adds.
"When you look at how things have changed over the past 100 years, you really develop an appreciation for what unions have accomplished," says Cormack. "At the turn of the last century, there were no rights or protections in place for workers. There were no health and safety laws. There were no pensions or health care plans. There was no minimum wage. And workers were entirely at the whim of their employers. Unions changed all of that."
Through a commitment to defend workers and to fight for social change, unions in Canada and Alberta forced a large number of positive changes - everything from the 40-hour work week to WCB to unemployment insurance, to health benefits and pensions.
"Unions raised the bar for all workers," says Cormack.
Of course, there are those who claim that organized labour's victories are all in the past, that unions have outlived their usefulness. But Cormack says nothing could be farther from the truth.
"The weeks leading up to Labour Day 1999 have offered some grim reminders of why unions are as important as ever," she says.
"The horrible explosion at the Home oil recycling plant in Calgary brought home for all of us the need to remain vigilant when it comes to issues of health and safety. The desperate hunger strike by a group of injured workers in front of the WCB office encouraged us to think about what is going wrong with the workers' compensation system. And repeated reports of employers violating basic employment standards have reminded us that many working Albertans are still not being treated fairly by their bosses."
When it comes to issues like health and safety, WCB and the protection of basic workplace rights, Cormack says that there is still clearly a major role for unions to play. There is also an important role for unions to play when it comes to broader social, political and economic issues, she adds.
"On social and economic issues, unions have always been at the forefront of the struggle to defend workers' interests," says Cormack. "For example, the labour movement led the fight to defeat the Conservatives' private hospital bill, Bill 37. Unions also played a pivotal role in convincing the Klein government to increase Alberta's abysmally low minimum wage. Every day, union activists continue to work with community groups on a wide range of social and economic justice issues. Without unions, much of this important work would not be done."
Given all the challenges that confront working people at the end of the 20th century, Cormack says it's clear that unions have not lost their relevance or importance.
"Far from it," she says. "Just look at what's been happening in the world economy and the local economy over the past 20 years. Declining real wages. On-going job insecurity. Deep cuts to public services. Corporations moving jobs to low-wage countries in the Third world. The polarization between people who work too many hours and those who don't have enough work. In this kind of environment, working people clearly still need the kind of protection that unions provide - maybe now more than ever."
Cormack says that the benefits of belonging to a union are as clear today as they have ever been. She points out that union member's fare better on almost every scale than their non-union counterparts.
For example, the average union wage in Canada is $18.57 per hour compared to $14.04 for non-union workers. Union workers are also far more likely to be paid premium wages for the overtime hours they work; they are much more likely to have a pension plan; and they are more likely to have access to extended health and dental benefits.
At the same time, studies have shown that unionized workers have more job security and higher levels of job satisfaction. These higher levels of job satisfaction, in turn, lead to higher levels of productivity in unionized firms.
"Based on all the research that is available, it's clear that it still makes sense to belong to a union," says Cormack. "Unions are good for workers because they improve wages, benefits and job security. Unions are also good for the economy as a whole because they boost consumer-spending power improve the stability of our communities. Unions are even good for business because they improve productivity. It's a win-win situation."
Cormack says that despite the current boom in the Alberta economy, the need for unions in the province is as great as ever. She points out that between 1983 and 1998 the real wages of hourly-paid workers in Alberta fell by 12 per cent. At the same time, more people have been forced into part-time jobs or low-paid self-employment.
"There are major changes sweeping through the economy and the workplace. More and more, working people are being treated like commodities - like post-it notes that can be used and then discarded," says Cormack. "In this kind of environment, unionized workers are in a much better position to protect their rights. Unions can provide shelter against the storm."
This message - that unions can help workers defend themselves against the ravages of the global economy - has not been lost on Alberta workers, says Cormack. Union organizing activity in the province is on the upswing and unions are growing.
"Despite Alberta's lousy labour laws, the provincial labour movement is continuing to expand and grow," says Cormack, pointing out that union membership in the province has grown from 253,000 in 1997 to 268,000 in 1998 and 280,000 so far in 1999. In other words, union membership in Alberta has increased by 11 percent in just two years. This growth rate outpaces the overall growth in the workforce - and gives Alberta the distinction of having one of the fastest growing provincial labour movements in the country.
"This trend towards growing union membership is something that we are very proud of," says Cormack. "But we don't intend to rest on our laurels."
In the next year - and into the new century - Cormack says that unions in Alberta will continue to put a priority on organizing new members - and the AFL will continue fighting to bring workplace justice to an ever-wider group of working Albertans.
In addition to supporting the organizing efforts of individual unions, Cormack says the AFL will also continue its campaign against private health and chronic under-funding in important public services like education and health care. Given that the provincial government has recorded approximately $10 billion in budget surpluses over the past six years, she says the time has clearly come for significant on-going re-investment in public services and programs. Cormack says the AFL will continue putting pressure on the government to increase staff at hospitals, reduce classroom sizes and boost transfers to municipalities.
"As was the case at the beginning of the 20th century, working people are now confronted with a wide range of challenges," says Cormack. "As we enter the 21st century, the labour movement will continue to defend the gains that have been made over the past 100 years. We will also turn our attention to new challenges - like globalization, racism and discrimination and protecting the environment.
"In short, we will go into the 21st century the same way we went into the 20th century - fighting hard to protect the rights and interests of working people."
For more information call:
Alberta Federation of Labour @ 483-3021 (work) 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (home)