The spring air, typically redolent with a sense of hope and renewal, hung over Queen’s Park in May 2014 like a menacing storm cloud ready to break into a twister.

Two years of rancorous, scandal-ridden minority government had collapsed into itself. As the election writ dropped, Ontarians faced a stark political reality: the prospect of a hard-right Progressive Conservative leader intent on declaring outright war on the province’s labour movement.

The right to collective bargaining was going on political trial.

If successful, the prospect of a provincial government pulling out all the stops to break the power of Ontario’s labour movement would have spread like contagion to other Canadian provinces.

For the labour movement, it had the feel of an existential crisis.

We all know how that story ended: the Progressive Conservatives were roundly defeated at the polls and the leader not only resigned but faced a virtual caucus revolt to push him out as fast as politically plausible.

Another year in the life of Canada’s labour movement. It’s a movement that, from day one, has had to fight to secure workers’ rights. It’s a movement that is constantly under trial, politically and at the bargaining table. A movement whose staying power relies purely on a steady resolve that going it together is better than going it alone.

No one ever handed unions an easy victory and no one likely ever will. Perhaps that is part of their staying power.

Steps from Queen’s Park, there is a simple plaque commemorating a watershed moment for Canada’s labour movement. In the spring of 1872, workers represented by the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike for the right to a nine-hour work day—down from the widely practiced 12-hour requirement. By mid-April, they were joined by 10,000 working-class supporters at Queen’s Park. Solidarity in motion.

Some members of the strike committee did jail time. Some lost their jobs. But, eventually, there was a payoff. The Trade Union Act of 1872 legalized union activity in Canada. And after the strike of 1872, the fight for a shorter work week became a core focus of union negotiations. We’ve all benefited from that bargaining victory, whether we’re in a union or not.

It has become cliché to thank unions for the eight-hour work week, but it did not come without sacrifice and struggle.

Those collective efforts have had staying power.

The labour movement found its stride marching to the heartbeat of the industrial revolution. The movement was about securing basic human rights to worker safety. The movement also sought to protect the fundamentals of a worker’s craft or trade. This was particularly important during the deskilling efforts of Taylorism, which attempted to break down skilled work into small, repetitive tasks (as opposed to allowing a worker to, for instance, make a chair from start to finish).

Back when Canada had royal commissions on emerging socio-economic issues, the plight of the exploited worker became a national concern. The federal government created a Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital in 1889. Such a commission is fairly unthinkable in today’s political zeitgeist, but, given the current rise of precarious work, it is possible we may see something similar in the not-too-distant future.

The Commission reported that many workers were being injured on the job. They laboured under oppressive working conditions. The solution? Government intervention to correct the excesses of capitalism.

But even a royal commission endorsement of workers’ rights was small potatoes. It would take the courage of workers to act en masse, on behalf of all workers’ rights, to secure real improvements. And that was only a few decades away.

Canada after World War I wasn’t exactly a haven for good jobs. There was high income inequality, high unemployment, high inflation, and massive worker unrest. There were more than 400 strikes in Canada between 1919 and 1920.

The flashpoint for resistance came in May 1919, when the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called for a general strike after negotiations broke down between building and metal trades workers and their employers. Within hours, more than 30,000 workers walked off the job. They closed the factories. They stopped the trains. The city ground to a standstill.

Many paid a price. Some strike leaders were convicted of trying to overthrow the government. A charge by the RCMP resulted in many casualties and one death.

But on the streets of Winnipeg, the true staying power of the labour movement was forged as the various Western Canada unions decided to become “one big union” and try to reverse exploitative working conditions. Their point was not lost.

The royal commission that resulted from this disruption warned, “if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence … then the Government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital.”

It took decades, but eventually, workers’ rights took root in Canada.

In 1937, Canada was coming to grips with what had become the Great Depression, with mass poverty and increasing social unrest. It was also the year collective bargaining was officially recognized in Canada, following a strike by the United Auto Workers at the General Motors’ plant in Oshawa.

While the gains made by Canada’s labour movement are often associated with the strengthening of blue-collar workers under the industrial revolution, it is no accident that Canadian workers who made automobiles took the first great strides in collective bargaining. The automobile was a symbol of hope and prosperity in North America. Automakers like Henry Ford understood that to create a sustainable market of consumers for his automobiles, he needed to pay his workers a higher minimum wage (so they could buy his goods). The gains in collective bargaining made by autoworkers ultimately morphed into the symbol for middle class prosperity.

The middle class dream: own your home, buy a car, enjoy a modicum of job security in return for hard work, expertise, and company loyalty. It was good for the company and it was good for capitalism.

In today’s political climate—where some politicians deride the idea of job security in an attempt to score cheap political points and others make empty promises to curry favour with middle class and working families—that history is readily forgotten, to our detriment. The promise of a vibrant middle class requires the same sensibility as a vibrant democracy: neither survives on mere autopilot. Complacency is a killer.

As I’ve written elsewhere, unions can be a great equalizer in society. Before the 1950s, Canada didn’t have a strong middle class. Income inequality was higher. The quality of life was not what it is today.

Unions and broadly shared prosperity go hand in hand. Economist Jordan Brennan’s research ( shows that as union density grew modestly between 1910 and 1940, hourly earnings grew by 43 per cent. But between 1940 and 1977, union density in Canada doubled—and hourly earnings tripled. During this same period, as unionization was on steady ascent, income inequality in Canada dropped. Before World War II, the story in Canada was really one of the rich and the rest of us. But the rise of unionized workers in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s made 
a difference. That’s when Canada got busy building its middle class, solidifying the notion that as the economy grew, prosperity should be shared.

Since 1977, income inequality has gotten worse—mirroring many of the trends in place before Canada’s labour movement was fully entrenched. As union density declined post-1977, so did hourly earnings. It’s a story that affects us all, whether we’re among the lucky ones earning more than 90 per cent of the rest of Canadians, or whether we’re among Canada’s most vulnerable.

It matters—and unions matter—in several ways.

With the rise of the middle class came the ability for people to pool their tax contributions to pay for public services that benefit everyone: universal health care and public education, to name just two. I was born a farm kid, with dim chances for a university education, for a life as a writer and researcher. But in 1965, the federal government promised to implement three public programs: universal public health care, public pensions to greatly reduce seniors’ poverty, and affordable university tuition.

I was the first in my immediate family to go to university, thanks to that policy decision, and thanks to Canadian taxpayers, who gave the ultimate gift: opportunity.

But yesterday’s gains hold no iron-clad promise for tomorrow’s workers.

It has only been 68 years since Canadian political parties agreed to uphold one of the most important legal decisions affecting unionized workers: the Rand Formula, a 1946 legal judgment granting unions the right to include a union dues clause in their collective bargaining agreements.

This right to expect all unionized workers to contribute, by way of dues, to the viability of a union is exactly what the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader was hoping to undermine in his bid for power. The Rand Formula articulates the ultimate expression of union solidarity. Everyone contributes, everyone benefits.

It is a principle of collective bargaining that is as relevant today as it was in the contested days of the industrial revolution.

The anti-union trope goes like this: during the industrial revolution, where exploitation of desperate blue-collar workers was rampant, unions served a purpose. They secured safer working conditions. But Canada has moved on. What, possibly, do educated white-collar workers have to gain from a union?

In the 1970s, as decades of middle-class growth began to falter, faculty associations began to unionize. They did so not only in response to hard economic times, but also to fight back against administrators who sought to centralize control of the university. A decade earlier, a new organization formed in Ontario—the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. As its member associations unionized, OCUFA began to help them bargain for fair working terms while trying to set a higher bar for public investment in an affordable, quality university system. Unions are never about individual pay, though the premium is undeniable. They’re also about setting the terms for better jobs, a condition critical to the longevity of the middle class. OCUFA and its member associations have been fighting for better academic jobs for decades.

Today, young academics find themselves completing their PhD studies only to land in an uncharitable work reality: one that is precarious, low-paying, and the antithesis of the promise of a well-trained academic. No one is immune to workplace exploitation. For OCUFA and its members, this will be a defining issue in the coming years.

The challenges to collective action are constant, and constantly changing. That’s why unions are a great equalizer, the counterforce to unfettered capitalism. They are sometimes even the catalysts for something revolutionary. That is part of their tremendous staying power. It’s why unions matter. AM

Trish Hennessy, a former OCUFA staffer, is director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Ontario office.