What is a good job? In most people’s minds I assume that would be something that pays well and provides good benefits, steady employment and satisfying work.

In the post-war period that described manufacturing jobs. They weren’t good because of the benevolence of the free market. Quite the contrary. They were good because they were union jobs.

Early in the last century, manufacturing jobs were not all that great. Workers often toiled in dirty, dangerous workplaces for low pay and endured long hours. But as the century progressed, manufacturing workplaces were unionized and the jobs were transformed into the well-paid, stable and desirable jobs they became.

However, for the last half century, growth in manufacturing jobs has been outpaced by growth in services jobs. Today, services make up about 80 percent of Canadian employment. As part of this trend we have seen the rise of the precariat job—low paid, poor benefits and unpredictable working hours—while unionization has declined.

Consider employment in the retail sector, now the largest single employer in this country. Retail jobs are, unfortunately, characterized by low wages, unpredictable working hours, part-time work, and often the need to juggle multiple jobs to earn a living wage.

That doesn’t have to be the case. In Sweden, retail jobs are good jobs. Their starting salaries are up to 40 per cent higher than ours, workers have a minimum five weeks paid holidays, receive overtime pay for weekends and holidays, and are entitled to generous parental leaves.

Why the difference? In a word, unionization. Seventy per cent of retail workers in Sweden are unionized compared to twelve per cent in this country. But unionization in itself may not be enough.

In the 1970s, Canadian grocery-store jobs were middle-class union jobs with stable hours and good pay. But then in the 80s, discount chains entered the market and some, such as Walmart, were non-union. The unions were forced to accept cuts in wages and the erosion of other benefits to keep their employers in business. Today, unionized grocery jobs start at or near the minimum wage.

Conditions did not erode in Sweden even with the rise of discount stores. Wages continued to grow and today the starting salary is over $20 an hour with most workers earning much more.

Again, why the difference? Mainly because Sweden practices sectoral bargaining. Rather than each individual union bargaining with its employer, the union bargains with the entire industry across a sector of the economy. The agreement arrived at will typically apply to union and nonunion workers alike—every worker is covered. For example, under sectoral bargaining unions representing workers at fast-food chains would collectively negotiate an agreement covering all of the chains whether burger, taco, or fried chicken.

Workers benefit from strength in numbers and this maximizes their strength. It greatly facilitates the ability of small workplaces, such as fast-food outlets, to represent their workers.

No one company need fear that if it gives its workers a raise the additional cost will put it at a disadvantage relative to its competitors. By levelling the playing field, sectoral bargaining benefits both workers and employers.

Sectoral bargaining not only leads to better pay and benefits but also to higher levels of collective agreement coverage, improved labour standards, reduced unemployment and less wage inequality. Low-wage work is much rarer in countries where sectoral bargaining is encouraged and widespread.

Canada’s labour laws need to be revised to facilitate and encourage sectoral bargaining. At a time when jobs are threatened like never before by technology, including AI, and globalization, workers need the strongest possible voice in their workplaces.

And then there’s democracy, also under threat. Unions provide the only democracy in the workplace, to many the most important place of all. Without it our democracy is seriously incomplete. With it, democracy receives the reinforcement it needs.

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