Why are unions involved in political action?
There are two parts to the answer. The first part is “by tradition.” The second part is “by necessity!”
Traditionally, unions have been involved in politics for three reasons:
- To gain recognition of the right of workers to form unions and bargain collectively;
- To protect the gains they have won through collective bargaining; and,
- To promote justice and equal economic opportunity for all.
Workers have achieved much by acting collectively to set our own agenda and then elect politicians who either believed in the same things as us or who “saw the light” because of the number of votes we represent.
We saw this way back in 1872, when the Toronto Printers’ Strike for a 9 hour workday “inspired” then-Prime Minister John A. MacDonald to introduce legislation legalizing unions. And we see it today, as politicians in municipal, provincial and federal levels of office recognize the strength of workers’ collective political power.
This is why governments and business go to such great lengths to convince the public that unions and social organizations are just “special interest groups” that don’t work for the greater good.
Our experience in the last several decades has shown us that legislation that governs our destiny in the workplace can eliminate hard-won contractual and social gains. Big business, probably the biggest “special interest group” in our society, has no problem lobbying the courts and politicians to further their goals.
- Legislation ending strikes or even the right to strike in both the public and private sectors;
- Court injunctions against the right to picket;
- Legislated wage and benefit cuts, layoffs and “austerity” that affect us all.
All of society is being affected by government’s current push for “austerity”. This really means less protection of workers’ rights on the job, less health care, less unemployment insurance, less social assistance, less retirement income, fewer child care options – but, amazingly, more profits for business.
Business groups actively set their agendas and use their wealth and organizations, such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Business Council on National Issues, among others, to lobby and push politicians to achieve them.
And while we don’t have their financial power – we have our people power, and tons of it. Our wealth is our collectivity as workers and as a society. Our organizations are our unions, social movements and political parties.
Acting politically is the logical and enlightened thing to do
You wouldn’t elect your bosses as union stewards; you know they wouldn’t represent your best interests on the job. It doesn’t make any more sense to elect management persons to represent our interest in politics.
Union members know in their gut how to best change a situation they aren’t pleased with: use their collective strength. If they aren’t happy with how the workplace is, they can – collectively – go on strike. If workers feel that the union leadership in the local isn’t responding to their needs, they vote them out.
It is our collective strength and our commitment to political action that will convince governments and business to do the right thing. To achieve this, we must educate and organize our membership around our issues, strengthen our coalitions with like-minded social groups, and elect politicians who represent us – and hold them to our agenda.
It’s a fine tradition – and a current necessity.