Every so often I find myself in a conversation with someone who wonders if unions are still needed in Canada today.
Today we have laws to protect workers, they’ll say. There’s no more child labour; we get paid extra for overtime; employers can’t discriminate based on race, sex or anything else; employees are required to get breaks; etc. Why bother paying dues to a union?
A report last week from a panel that examined Ontario’s labour laws shows exactly why.
According to the report, 75 to 77 per cent of inspections of work sites by the Ontario Ministry of Labour found violations of the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act.
How can this be?
One reason is that there’s little incentive for employers to follow all labour laws. In Ontario, for example, there are nowhere near enough enforcement officers to inspect all the workplaces in the province, and fines for non-compliance aren’t enough to deter violations.
But more importantly, when an employee suspects their boss is breaking the law, it’s often hard to do anything about it.
If it hasn’t already happened to you, picture it: you work a low-wage job, which you depend on to make rent. Your boss sometimes asks you to stay after your shift, or changes your shift at the last minute. You’re encouraged not to take vacation. You’re asked to do work that’s dangerous, and that you haven’t been trained for.
All these are simple, and common, labour law violations. But do you go to the trouble of making a complaint to the authorities? Will your boss suspect you’re the one who complained? Will you be fired, supposedly for some other reason? If that happens, can you hire a lawyer to plead your case? How hard will it be to find another job?
In theory, labour laws protect workers from abuses. In practice, it’s hard to get wrongs righted if you don’t have a union.
Unionized workers can call their union office if they suspect something’s not right in their workplace, and officials should be able to tell you what recourse you might have. If you’re disciplined, fired, or denied a promotion, the union can determine whether laws and contracts have been respected.
There’s also a “chill effect” on employers when a workplace is unionized – it’s less likely that an employer will push the boundaries of legality if they know a union is watching.
To be fair, things also don’t always work the way they’re supposed to. Unions aren’t always strong or effective enough to counter every abuse in the workplace. Sometimes workers feel poorly served by their union, and sometimes a collective agreement doesn’t protect a worker the way they would like. Resolving an issue through a formal grievance process can sometimes take years.
Without a union, though, it’s much less likely to be resolved at all.