Every generation of parents, from Canada’s First Peoples through each wave of immigration since, have trusted that hard work would deliver a brighter future and improved fortunes for their children and their grandchildren. However, despite record levels of education, today’s youths will become the first generation in history to expect a lower standard of living than their parents.
For most of the last century, high school students could expect to graduate into well-paid jobs in manufacturing or other sectors that enabled them to buy a house, support a family, and join the “middle class.” Their counterparts today are graduating from college or university with unprecedented levels of student debt only to wind up wallowing in low-paying service jobs that offer no security, limited benefits and few prospects for advancement.
Successive Liberal and Conservative governments have engineered a dramatic reversal of fortune across Canada that is driving down wages and threatening to leave future generations behind. For the first time since the 1950s, employment rates have dropped and new job creation has hit the skids. Even in Canada’s economic epicentre, barely 50 percent of workers enjoy full-time, permanent jobs.
For the country’s labour unions, this alarming workforce transformation is triggering a profound re-imagining of the labour movement. Labour is confronting the harsh reality that declining union density and an increasingly precarious workforce are dragging down wages and benefits faster than union standards can pull them up. Unions can no longer respond through self-preservation at the expense of other workers. Two-tier wages and benefits is a road to union ruination.
A truly universal labour movement requires a bottom-up approach to worker action that is driven by a movement of all working people, the unemployed, the precariously employed, the retired, and the many diverse communities who are being marginalized within today’s economy. The movement to strengthen workplace organization and to reinvigorate unions seeks its reflection in legislation. Obstacles to unionization and collective bargaining must be removed in favour of worker empowerment.