Friday, 19 July 2013

Want to be Happy? Increase Union Density

In terms of life satisfaction, countries with the most union density consistently rank at the top. The Better Life Index, for instance, which rates the life satisfaction and happiness levels of people in the 36 countries of the OECD, has found that three of the top five countries are in the European Union. These three countries in order of appearance are: Norway at number 2, Sweden at number 4 and Denmark at number 5. Besides being in the top 5, another thing these countries have in common is that they have the highest union rates in the EU.

As of 2012, trade union density in Norway and Sweden was 54.7% and 67.5% respectively. As of 2010, Denmark had a trade union density of 68.5%[1]. That these countries rose to the top of the happiness index in the EU is significant. The rate of union density in the EU as a whole hovers somewhere around 26%, which is similar to the Canadian rate of 26.8% (in 2011). The countries with the least life satisfaction in Europe are closer to this figure than to those of Norway, Sweden or Denmark. In the US the union density rate is only about 13%. With a density rate like that, it’s not surprising that the US didn’t even break the top 10 in terms of life satisfaction.

While the Better Life Index rates happiness based on an evaluation of 11 different factors, including income, education, work-life balance and the satisfaction a person feels in their life, some of these factors are arguably more important than others. Conal Smith, section head with the statistics directorate at the OECD, notes that life satisfaction is arguably the most important gauge of happiness, as it is the factor that comes as a result of all the others[2].

That happiness and life satisfaction are greater in countries with higher rates of unionization has also been reported in a study co-authored by Benjamin Radcliff, a political scientist from the University of Notre Dame. The study, which was published in the journal, Social Indicators Research, found that happiness in one’s life often means happiness at work. And happiness at work increases in relation to the robustness of union presence. The reasons for this are obvious: unions bring better job security, fair wages and benefits – all of which tend to lead to a better life.

But it’s not just union members who are happier. Radcliff found that the happiness brought about by union presence is a benefit for non-union workers as well as union workers. Specifically, Radcliff found that:
People who have union jobs like their jobs better. And that puts pressure on other employers to extend the same benefits and wages to compete with union shops[3].

This is the great generosity of organized labour. Unions benefit a country on a broad scale, securing crucial components of happiness for all citizens. Viewed in the opposite direction, the less robust union density is the less happiness people will have.

Just as weakened union presence erodes labour rights and creates a race to the bottom, so too does increased union presence strengthen labour rights and creates a rising tide that lifts all boats. These studies once again show that supporting the rights of workers is of the highest importance. And for anyone who would question why it’s important to support unions the answer is simply this: your happiness might depend on it. If concern for workers isn’t enough to persuade people to support unions, maybe their own self-interest will be.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Union Support on the Rebound

Since the beginning of the recession in 2009, unions have been a favourite scapegoat for politicians and business interests alike. Mercilessly (and unjustly) blamed for the financial woes and the decreased competitiveness of employers, unions had been seeing support leach away since the recession began, with a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center indicating that only 41% of Americans held a favourable view of unions. The economic downturn caused by corporate irresponsibility and fiscal malfeasance on Wall Street had transformed into grim times for unions. But the tide is turning.

In a thoughtful article in the American Prospect, Harold Meyerson notes that the most current Pew poll reports that from 2011 until now the public’s favourable view of unions has increased by 10% to 51%[1].  A Gallup poll conducted in the summer of 2012 reported that public support for unions was slightly higher at 52%[2]. The relevance of the 2012 Gallup is striking, as it was a Gallup poll conducted back in 2009 which found that over half of Americans felt that unions were hurting the economy.

While these polls are good news for unions, when broken down into demographics they also reveal another benefit - a largely untapped source of potential strength for unions: young people. The Pew poll found that 61% of people under the age of 30 hold favourable views of unions.

As reported in The American Prospect, there was another time in American history when things were hard but support for unions amongst young people was high. These conditions ultimately translated into union strength. In the 1930’s, union membership collapsed alongside the economy, but the unions had the support of the young. These youthful union supporters growing up in the bleak 1930’s went on to become “the most pro-union generation in American history.”[3]

By and large, the people under 30 of today are not members of unions, though the polls suggest they’d like to be. But even though they aren’t members, unions can still harness the power of this support by affiliating with causes of pressing importance to the young.

An uncertain future is a major concern for the young. For many young people it’s difficult to identify a particular concern, short of a general sense that the dream of a prosperous future has disappeared. As the young enter the workforce they’re hit with the awareness that the game is rigged against them, that working men and women are often treated with indifference by employers and government.  From obscene tuition rates and rising debt levels, to inflation and housing costs which outpace the rate of wages and decent jobs, the dream of a prosperous future has been supplanted by the looming threat of a raw deal. Lost amidst this sea of hopelessness and dismay, young people are beginning to see that there is one constant beacon representing a better life and a real future free from low-wage jobs and crippling debt: the unions. The awareness is there. Now it’s up to unions to make use of that support.   

Sunday, 14 July 2013

It's time to sign Convention 176

Workplace tragedies are not uncommon in mines around the world. In Canada, the Westray mining disaster is still alive in the minds of many Canadians, who in 1992 saw workers in the Westray mine die in a methane gas explosion. The explosion was due largely to employer carelessness, a lack of training for workers and woefully inadequate safety standards.

Such events do not stop at our borders and the world has since seen similar disasters. In 2010, for example, 18 years after the Westray miners lost their lives, a methane explosion killed 29 miners in New Zealand[1].While Canadian safety standards were improved following the Westray tragedy, there are still numerous deaths occurring in workplaces across the country every single year.

Despite improvements, with disasters like Westray still colouring the landscape of Canadian mining, one would hope that the Canadian government would take every possible precaution to prevent future tragedies. One would expect the government to concur with the many other countries, including the U.S., which have ratified ILO Convention No. 176.

The Safety and Health in Mines Convention, 1995 (No. 176) was designed by the international community to protect workers in the mining industry who face extraordinary dangers by virtue of their occupations. The Convention specifically recognizes that:

…workers have a need for, and a right to, information, training and genuine consultation on and participation in the preparation and implementation of safety and health measures concerning the hazards and risks they face in the mining industry…

Of course, this is true. Workers deserve a chance to be involved in their own safety. The fact that Canada has not formally recognized this by ratifying the Convention is deeply troubling. As our history has proven, and as the 2010 New Zealand explosion has shown, safety in mines is far from a distant concern. On the contrary, it is an ever-present concern that threatens the lives of workers every day they go to work. That’s the nature of the industry – it’s hard and honourable and rife with dangers.

The workers who fill the positions in the mines accept the natural dangers of the industry. But they shouldn’t have to accept more danger than is absolutely necessary. This is where Convention 176 comes into play. It is the duty of our government to provide as much safety as possible for the workers that keep one of this country’s core industry’s going strong.  That Convention 176 has yet to be signed and ratified fails miners both in Canada and abroad, fails their families and loved ones and fails the country as a whole. Canada needs to join the U.S. and other nations in protecting its most valuable resource: its workers.

The see the full text of the Convention click here.