Labour Day: The struggle continues for democracy in the workplace

In recent months Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall have begun a new wave of attacks against unions. They've put forward various proposals that make it a great deal more difficult for workers to bargain collectively.

Notwithstanding Wall and Hudak's ideologically tinged view that unions are too strong, in actual fact the deck is heavily stacked against those who want to assert their right to bargain collectively.

Employers' have many ways to pressure their workforce against unionizing. They often harass or fire employees leading an organizing drive. To dissuade their workforce management sometimes hints that it will shutter the business if employees unionize. Despite employer opposition and a generally hostile media climate, studies show that large numbers of workers not in a union would like to be.

This yearning for collective workplace rights needs support. But, considering the power imbalance between corporations and unions it's imperative that laws be written to promote collective bargaining. The 1998 International Labour Organization Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work calls on governments to promote collective bargaining, not simply to be neutral.

Provincial labour codes should put into practice the ILO's principle of Social Partnership what McMaster Human Resources & Management professor Roy Adams calls the "theory … that nearly all workers want collective representation. Its central proposition is that collective bargaining is inherently good, the preferred process for making democracy effective in the economic sphere of society."

Labour legislation ought to codify the notion that workers deserve a say over workplace decisions. In many European countries, for instance, employees have works council representation and representatives on corporate boards of directors. Canadian provinces should follow suit.

But this won't happen unless we question what the Financial Times has called the "paradox" that "all democratic societies live with." The idea that democracy is only important in the political realm, or as the British business paper put it, "We elect our political leaders ... but we do not elect the people who run our workplaces."

Why if we pride ourselves on living in a democratic society are workplaces undemocratic? Most people spend 40 hours a week at work; this is close to a third of their waking hours in an undemocratic structure. Why is this seen as acceptable?

A number of polls in the English speaking world show that workers want greater say over workplace decisions. Many scholars argue there is a fundamental human desire for democracy and there's no indication this yearning turns off when people get to work.

Canadians don't need any more politicians who want to further undermine collective bargaining rights or the notion that workers deserve some say over their working conditions. Rather this country's workers need politicians who will loudly proclaim their opposition to the master servant relations that dominate so many workplaces.

We need political leaders who will advance collective bargaining rights and stand up and say: 'Hundreds of thousands of Canadians work at chain restaurants, cafes and banks where they find it extremely difficult to unionize because each location has a small number of employees under tight management supervision. These workers deserve to improve their conditions through collective bargaining. I will pass legislation to make it easier for workers at major chains to unionize.'

This Labour Day could working people's politicians please stand up.


Dave Coles is the National President of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP).

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