Labour Rights are Everyone’s Rights

Labour Rights are Everyone’s Rights
By Dr. Leslie Jermyn

Since the stagflation of the 1970s and the shift to globalization and so-called ‘free’ market policies of the 1980s, there has been a trend to portray labour issues and especially unions as a hindrance to economic growth and prosperity. Those who remember the late 1970s and early 1980s in Canada can recall the seemingly constant wave of strikes that plagued industry and public service. In retrospect, it’s clear that these labour actions were a response to the tightening noose of free market reforms that were eliminating jobs, stagnating wages and rolling back worker benefits and job security. Workers were portrayed as spoiled whiners who were not prepared to step up to the mark of international competitiveness and productivity. It’s not surprising that corporate media were unsympathetic to workers given that they later implemented many of the same labour-rights-bashing techniques in their own organizations to increase competitiveness – which is just another word for profitability.

This collective social memory of ‘bad’ unions stuck in some old-fashioned world where workers were owed a decent, secure living continues to infect contemporary views on labour rights in general. It is well nigh impossible to find a critical story about sweatshops and maquilas (overseas assembly factories) that isn’t coloured by the patronizing excuse that underpaid workers in poor countries are, and should be, grateful for any work at all. These articles always end with a few juicy quotes from 15-year old seamstresses or 18-year old welders about how life is bad but it would be much worse without the sweatshop. This is a subtle form of propaganda that diverts attention from the fact that labour rights aren’t just about wages and conditions somewhere else and they should not need to be traded for the ‘right’ to merely survive. Labour rights are the basis for fundamental protections of human rights around the world and workers were and are key to achieving and guaranteeing these universal protections – protections, I might add, that most of us take for granted.

What would your life be like without unions?
When the industrial revolution kicked off in England in the 1780s, there were no worker protections. Workers were considered to be second class citizens who didn’t deserve the same quality (or even quantity) of life as the upper classes. Textile factories, where it all began, preferred to hire children and women because they deserved even fewer rights and lower pay than adult men. Children as young as 4 and 5 worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Illness from lack of ventilation, mutilation from machinery and death were not uncommon consequences.

This revolution in producing goods came to Canada in the mid-nineteenth century with few improvements over the original English model. Workers were underpaid, overworked and had little political power. They lived in urban slums where the absence of sanitation killed thousands from communicable diseases. Various levels of government outlawed union organization and allowed employers to blacklist workers who tried to form bargaining collectives. By the end of the nineteenth century, government, media and business worked hand-in-hand to smash unions and counter their appeal to Canada’s expanding working class.

In the years before WWI, unions continued to expand and contract according to the economic climate. They were able to gain worker support during good times when unemployment was low but often lost it when whole industries contracted during depressions. Strikebreaking using public servants like the police was common. Nonetheless, these early unions were the first to recognize that women and immigrant workers should enjoy the same rights as native-born male workers. These were revolutionary ideas that ran counter to the divide-and-rule strategy of big business and government.

Over the course of the last century, workers and union organizations continued to fight for worker and citizen rights. Thanks to their struggles, we now enjoy universal health care, pensions, reasonable work weeks and a minimum wage. These guarantees extend to all Canadians regardless of gender or ethnicity.

The neo-liberal economic policies of the last 25-30 years have unraveled some of the rights achieved by the labour movement and returned us to a time of job insecurity, overwork and low wages in many sectors (especially services) and sadly, many of the same people who would most benefit from union organization are infected with the media-government slant that unions block economic progress. Nothing could be further from the truth. Canada is today a relatively prosperous country with a well-educated, healthy and productive workforce precisely because of the hard work of union organizers of the last two centuries. Without them, we would very likely still be living without wage protection, with child labour, without worker health and safety regulations, without an old-age pension (or any other for that matter), with no guaranteed healthcare, without public education and without worker protection from discrimination and harassment just to name a few of the many rights we enjoy today. The fight for labour rights turned into a victory for universal human rights and we should never forget the debt we owed and still owe to those who struggle to make a decent living possible for all of us.

Taking it Global
Many countries around the world are undergoing some of the same struggles that plagued Canadian workers and citizens 150 years ago. Others are fighting to reverse the loss of rights suffered under neo-liberal globalization in the last 30 years. Tailoring your consumption decisions to support governments and companies who observe workers’ rights to organize as well as their fundamental human rights to a decent living will contribute to this global struggle. The bad news is that it isn’t always easy to determine who to support. The good news is that supporting worker rights abroad contributes to better worker protections at home because when corporations can no longer force workers to compete with each other to offer the lowest wages and fewest protections, we will all benefit.

The following list of criteria are designed to make these decisions a little easier but given the complexity of the issue and the difficulty of determining which company is doing what where, all major purchases (expensive or one-time items, bulk buys etc.) should be researched in advance.

1. Buy Union made: This sounds easy but not all union-made goods are labeled and some countries may use a union label even when they do not permit independent union organization (eg. Mexico). See our list of countries that do not protect workers’ right to organize to create a blacklist of source countries for yourself.
2. Buy Fair Trade: You can learn more about this here [link to Fair Trade articles]. In brief, fair trade means fair wages and the right to organize.
3. Buy Cooperatively produced goods: Many fair trade goods are produced by cooperatives but not all cooperatives are certified fair trade so look for these products too.
4. Buy as much as you can from domestic producers that you can research for yourself so that you know that they comply with Canada’s labour laws.
5. Buy from family-run and labour friendly retailers: It’s not just about the production of the goods, but also about the workers who sell them to you. This is pretty easy compared to the rest: ask the shop clerk about their work conditions; if they’re good, shop, if not, walk. (As a tip, some retailers and service companies are notoriously anti-union and should be avoided – most big-box and fast food chains for example).
6. Buy high-quality products over cheap knock-offs: Generally, if the price is too good to be true, then you can pretty much guarantee that workers were not paid a fair wage. Don’t be deceived by all the blah-blah about buying in bulk to pass savings on to you. When you look at a product made half way around the world, consider the value of the raw materials, the cost of shipment, the overhead of middleman traders and retailers, the profit to the producer company and if there isn’t much left over, then you know workers were squeezed to make the product. That does not mean that expensive things are always made by well-paid workers, but the combination of price, quality and country of origin (does it come from a country with a high standard of living) generally reflects better work conditions and pay rates.
7. If there are no good options for a particular category of goods, buy second-hand. Learn more about this here [link to recycling article].
8. If there are no labour-friendly options and you can’t get it second-hand, consider substituting something else. This may require some creative brainstorming but you might be surprised with the results.
9. If there you can’t substitute, consider making it yourself. Now we’re talking creativity!
10. If there are no-labour friendly options, no real substitutes and you can’t make it yourself, do without. This is usually much harder to imagine than to actually accomplish once you set your mind to it and your sacrifice will remove some of the profit incentive to produce goods and services without regard for the humans who do the work. In the end, most of us are workers so we’re helping ourselves by protecting everyone.

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