At a recent meeting I was at, a young nurse started to tear up talking about how difficult life is for the young mothers she works with. She spoke about this punishing environment where daycare costs so much a single mom working full time earning minimum wage can’t make ends meet. Nearly half of Canadians feel they are two paycheques away from being poor, and the lack of hope is debilitating. Yet, we watch governments cry poor to justify constant cuts to social supports.
All kinds of statistics show the income gap between the rich and the rest of us is larger than it has ever been. A big part of all recent income gains has been going to the richest 1 % of Canadians reversing the trend toward greater equality in Canada. Last year the top 100 CEOs in Canada earned nearly 8.5 million dollars; the average worker earns $35,000. Still, tax cuts in recent years predominantly benefit the wealthy while leading to cuts in programs designed to help those who live paycheck to paycheck. We seem determined to follow a US model even though we have examples in other northern countries where tax systems are designed to improve life for working people.
I am one of the lucky ones who get to work at a place that has been unionized for years (thanks to the hard work of past generations), so I earn more than minimum wage. So why should I care that my neighbour struggles working two minimum-wage jobs that barely pay the bills? Because that is not the kind of country I want to live in. Because it doesn’t have to be that way. Because working people are the backbone of a country, and with the right strategies, we can support each other to ensure a majority of Canadians live comfortably and with dignity. Perhaps unbridled capitalism is not the only model. Perhaps balanced tax strategies and more unions speaking for more people, are not part of the problem, but a significant part of the solution.
People forget that unions were started by idealists, and activists agitating for better working conditions, living standards and equal rights for everyone, not just for their members. In recent years, politicians financed by corporate interests have managed to make unions into the bad guys, turning working people against each other. But it does not have to be that way.
I was inspired this weekend to hear from union activists and community volunteers trying to figure out how to help struggling Canadians including new immigrants, single parents, retirees and students. Unions are ordinary workers. We are every Canadian. The only difference is we are lucky enough to have found a way to work collectively to fight for better conditions. We want everyone to have the same benefits and we are willing to help Canadians fight for them. We are on the side of all workers. We know fighting each other is counter-productive. It only serves corporate interests, destroys potential jobs for younger people and lowers salaries for all Canadians. We have to find a better way – together. This is why unions spend so much time and energy lobbying to make Canada a kinder, more tolerant country – we fight to boost minimum wage, expand Canada Pension Plan, make social supports a priority, improve human rights legislation, have fair and reasonable EI policies and above all make sure Canada’s working people are treated fairly.
That’s why I spent this weekend with 200 hundred volunteers (mostly union members) in Windsor, brainstorming how we get there and how we make fairness a political priority and a reality.