By Bea Bruske, President of the Canadian Labour Congress as published in The Hill Times
Behind the smiles and handshakes when a U.S. president visits Canada are long hours of painstaking negotiations. Officials plan the trip to the minute and fight it out over every item on the agenda. An agenda that will no doubt include U.S. protectionism and ‘Buy American’ policies, North American supply chain disruptions, and more.
But when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes U.S. President Joe Biden to Ottawa in a few weeks, he can make this summit about more than Canada playing political defence on the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act. Mr. Trudeau can take a page from Mr. Biden’s playbook and show his government’s commitment to creating family-supporting union jobs that build stronger communities.
President Biden’s work to strengthen the labour movement and reverse years of anti-union policies has not been discussed nearly enough here in Canada. From restoring bargaining rights for federal workers to protecting the right to organize to tying climate action funding to the creation of decent-paying union jobs – Mr. Biden’s economic policy places a stronger labour movement at its core.
In his recent State of the Union Address, Mr. Biden called his economic agenda a “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America.” He challenged Congress to legislate better protection for people’s right to join a union, crackdown on illegal union-busting, and guarantee every worker a living wage. By using his bully pulpit to talk positively about the role unions play in American society, Mr. Biden is moving public opinion. A Gallup poll from last August showed that 71 percent of Americans supported labour unions, a 55-year high.
Canadians also have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to union contributions to our society. From the 40-hour workweek decades ago, to finally achieving a ban on asbestos, to recently securing paid sick leave, unions help achieve a pathway to the middle class for workers through organizing and collective bargaining – and the gains made benefit everyone.
But in recent decades, we have seen governments diminish workers’ abilities to organize. When workers’ collective power is weakened, we see growing income disparity and the outsized rise of corporate power. A report from the Centre for Future Work last June showed that corporate profits had reached the highest share of GDP since Statistics Canada began collecting this data.
Like Mr. Biden, Prime Minister Trudeau could outline a made-in-Canada worker empowerment agenda that dismantles barriers to collective bargaining, protects workers’ rights to organize and ensures that our ambitious agenda to build new infrastructure and housing creates good, union jobs.
Just as Biden took on exploitative ocean shipping prices and capped prices charged by pharmaceutical companies; Canada’s government could tackle the corporate power imbalance. This could start with taking on big retail chains, which have used their market concentration to jack up prices and rake in record profits. As Mr. Biden said in his State of the Union Address, “capitalism without competition is not capitalism. It’s extortion.”
Our prime minister has a rare opportunity to stand beside an American president as both leaders declare their unequivocal support for workers’ rights and wellbeing. AndPrime Minister Trudeau can back up these words by putting good union jobs on the agenda when President Biden visits Ottawa next month.
Bea Bruske is president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Follow her on Twitter @PresidentCLC