As a child I never really understood what was going on in the wider world outside my small isolated community in the north. I grew up on the James Bay coast in Attawapiskat and the life we knew there was very far removed from everything and everyone in the modern world to the south.
The evening news provided a window into the world that we knew was out there. We saw all sorts of important things happening on the outside and we grew accustomed to the people that represented all this news. A couple of the regular CBC anchors that we all viewed regularly were Knowlton Nash and Peter Mansbridge. I grew up thinking that there was a small representative group of people that we should look up to in order to represent our world. There were the international leaders of major world centres and religious leaders. There were our national Native and non Native political leaders, provincial leaders and elected officials of the day.
Back then I also remember the news reporting on labour leaders who represented working men and women who formed great unions of people. Early on I understood that these leaders represented workers who fought for their rights to be safe from harm and to live in a fair exchange of benefits for their efforts. Back then, it was a common sight on the news to see these labour leaders speaking at public forums or headlining important news stories that involved strikes, workplace issues or workers negotiations in major centres across the country. At one point it felt as if it were a normal part of the news cycle to see a representative labour leader speaking on the evening news and it seemed as common as coverage of Canadian politicians.
Over the past 30 years things have changed. I suspect much of this change has come from the very powerful who control much of the world’s wealth. They funded campaigns that were aimed at discrediting unions and their leaders. These days whenever I hear about unions, workers rights or strikes, it is usually from a negative point of view. We seem to suffer very short memories when it comes to recognizing how important unions have been for working people. Decent pensions, the average work week, rates of pay, safety in the workplace, sick leave, vacation time, maternity leave and many other protections and benefits are the result of unions fighting for the common man and woman. Unions came about because none of this existed at one point and workers were little more than slaves.
According to Ed Finn, who once wrote a labour relations column for the Toronto Star for 15 years, throughout the 1970s, just about every major Canadian newspaper had reporters and columnists assigned specifically to labour-management relations. The job of these journalists was to provide a well balanced reporting of what was happening on any issues regarding workers and their employers. Today, there are virtually no dedicated reporters assigned to labour-management relations. That work is left to regular reporters who cover all sorts of other news subjects. This means that they seldom have the opportunity to dig deep into the complex issues that lead to strikes, work stoppages or issues of workers rights. The importance of the unions and their leadership has been diminished.
The image of the labour union has shifted in the opposite direction. The common misconception I hear about unions is that they are corrupt, misguided and are led by underworld bosses. Even the word labour leader has been replaced by the phrase ‘union boss’ which has been mirrored through movies and TV shows as another meaning for mafia boss or groups involved with organized crime.
Another common phrase I hear often is that ‘unions have too much power’, as if to imply that the workers of one area of industry have the collective power to control everything. In actual fact, the average worker and their salaries pale in comparison to what individual management professionals make. When it comes to power a limited number of billionaires control most of the world’s collective wealth.
In a study conducted in 2016, a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives described how on average, a top-earning CEO in Canada will have already earned in less than one work day what the average worker makes in an entire year. The report showed how on average the 100 highest-paid CEOs at TSX-listed companies for 2016 annual compensation hit a record $10.4 million, more than 200 times an average worker's salary of $49,738. That description leaves little doubt as to who has too much power in labour-management relations.
I realized a long time ago that those leaders representing labour have a lot in common with our First Nation leadership in that we are continually striving to make life better for people. There still is power in unity and we are all capable of coming together to stand for our mutual goals dedicated to fairness and a sharing of the wealth.