President's Commentary: We need a Canadian discussion about workers' rights

US Democratic candidates are debating the need for legislation that will defend, and expand, workers' rights. Isn't it time we saw Canadian politicians start to talk about implementing similar progressive policies? Make 2020 the year we demand lofty goals to improve the lives of all working people.

by Larry Brown, NUPGE President

It’s been a busy year for the labour movement, and certainly here at the National Union.

I can’t say it’s been the best year, though. Workers across Canada, in almost every province, are fighting for the right to bargain fairly, improve their working conditions, and keep up with the cost of living. Health care workers, education workers, and transportation workers are pushing back on the intense privatization campaigns being waged by provincial governments and employers. And at the same time as holding off the wolves at the door, we’re trying to protect the public services Canadians need so much, and we’re busy finding ways to make people’s lives better.

To look at this landscape, you’d think we’d all be frustrated, angry and glum. And sometimes we are, but not enough to let that hold us back from going after our goals: fairness and equality for everyone. 

We’ve had things to keep us going, like in B.C., where the government is returning home care services to the public sector.

And sometimes you find inspiration in the strangest places.

Take the United States, for instance. As Americans gear up for the next election, the top 2 Democratic candidates are staking out their territory, sending a message to workers that they are integral to shifting the direction of the country.  

To attract working people, Elizabeth Warren has announced a labour platform that is touted as the “most progressive and comprehensive agenda for workers since the New Deal.”

She wants to

  • increase labour and safety protections for farm and domestic workers who aren’t already covered by federal law,
  • strengthen bargaining rights for unionized workers, and
  • raise the minimum wage.

She wants the National Labor Relations Act to have provisions to fine employers who violate it. There would be legislation to make it easier for workers to unionize and harder for management to interfere in their decision-making. She would implement card-check provisions so that employers cannot use the interval between workers signing cards and voting to join a union as another opportunity to threaten, bully and intimidate workers from exercising their right to organize.

Then you have Bernie Sanders. Pledging to double union membership within his first term, Sanders is staking out his progressive platform for workers. He wants to

  • establish federal protections against firing except for just cause;
  • establish card-check process and first-contract legislation;
  • refuse to give federal contracts to employers that pay low wages, outsource jobs overseas, bust unions, deny benefits, and pay CEOs outrageous compensation and bonus packages;
  • eliminate “right-to-work” legislation;
  • allow farm and domestic workers—normally excluded from labour protections—to unionize.

He wants to protect workers’ pensions, ban the use of replacement workers during labour disputes, require companies to honour existing union contracts, give federal workers the right to strike, and provide a fair transition to Medicare for All. 

Both campaigns have lofty goals. But isn’t that the point? To lay out a vision of what life could be like with new leadership and a change in direction. What it looks like to put people first for a change!

The conversations that Warren and Sanders have sparked are more than just needed. They are not afraid to articulate the role that unions and workers play in creating a more equal country and society. 

They are challenging the status quo where the ultra-rich continue to amass wealth faster than ever before, while the majority of people struggle daily to get by.

The idea that people have a right to security of being, which includes housing, health care, good jobs, and safety is one that is in clear opposition to what President Trump and the Republicans have been dishing out. 

For the first time in a long time, we are hearing crystal-clear arguments out of the US about how billionaires are a huge part of the country’s economic problem. People are recognizing that millions of people aren’t succeeding because of a small group of elites blocking their way. And everyone who benefits from such a one-sided, unfair system is complicit with keeping people down.

And now politicians are talking in concrete ways about how to move toward equality and fairness. If that conversation can happen in the US, then certainly we can have it in Canada.

And if I can predict anything, it’s that in 2020, the National Union and its Components will continue to lead the way to a brighter, more equitable future for everyone.


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE