In his speech to the NDP convention, Jagmeet Singh promised a number of initiatives to deal with growing inequality: close tax loopholes, jack up the corporate tax rate and institute a national pharmacare program. All well and good but all of that has been promised before and has not yet managed to spark much enthusiasm.
Although many commentators have pointed to the decline in the labour movement as a major reason for rising inequality, Singh made no mention of any effort to turn that trend around. He could have made a terrific speech promising to promote unions and collective bargaining not only as an anti-inequality measure but also because Canada has a responsibility to do it based on international and constitutional obligations and because it has a moral responsibility to do it in order to fulfill the promise of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All the material any speech writer would ever need to make that argument is readily at hand.
First of all, Canada has a legal obligation to promote collective bargaining. Canada is a member of the International Labour Organization, a UN agency whose mission is to improve labour conditions around the world. The ILO constitution is considered to be a treaty. All members of the ILO have an obligation, as a condition of membership, to “respect, to promote and to realize in good faith” the “right to collective bargaining.” Canada also has a constitutional obligation to promote collective bargaining because the Charter, as the Supreme Court noted in its 2007 BC Health Services decision, “should be presumed to provide at least as great a level of protection as is found in the international human rights documents that Canada has ratified.” With respect to Freedom of Association which, in the context of employment, means the right to organize, bargain collectively and to strike, the ILO constitution is an international human rights document.
Secondly, the Federal Government has a moral obligation to promote collective bargaining. Here is what the Supreme Court had to say about collective bargaining in its BC Health Services decision. First, collective bargaining is consistent with the Charter’s underlying values which include “human dignity, equality, liberty, respect for the autonomy of the person and the enhancement of democracy.” Second, collective bargaining gives workers “some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work.” Third, collective bargaining is “intrinsically valuable as an experience in self-government.” Forth, collective bargaining diminishes “the historical inequality between employers and employees.” Fifth, labour organizations are necessary to enable workers “to deal on equal terms with their employers.” Sixth, collective bargaining permits workers to “achieve a form of workplace democracy and to ensure the rule of law in the workplace.”
The government also has a practical obligation to promote collective bargaining. In a recent article in the Toronto Star, Thomas Walkom joined many other commentators when he pointed to the decline in unions and collective bargaining as a reason for the rise in inequality. Labour strength and low unemployment mutually support each other. Where they are both in evidence, income and wealth flatten and labour’s share of the national product goes up. That’s what happened in both World War periods and with the Korean and Vietnamese wars continued through the 1970s. In that decade all the talk and some of the action was about labour-business-government cooperation in pursuit of economic stability. Labour had a place and a voice at the political bargaining table.
In that era, full employment meant a job for everyone who wanted one (and maybe a few more so people would be able to move around). Inequality of wealth and income was receding. It started going in the other direction after the deep recession of the early 1980s and the adoption of inflation targeting at whatever cost including throwing full employment (and union clout which depends on it) under the bus.
Coming out fully and uncompromisingly in favour of the expansion of unionization and collective bargaining would certainly be met with serious opposition. Capitalism’s defenders would yell and scream (as they did when Bob Rae tried something like this in the early 90s in Ontario). But the NDP now has nothing much to distinguish itself. It has drifted to the right. It is gray and nondescript. Promoting collective bargaining is truer to its root values. It is a way to put into play an option that, more than any others that are now being discussed, has a decent chance to reverse the march towards class divisions reminiscent of the early 19th century. It is the right thing to do.