OCTOBER 31, 1968
Labour's Prime Concerns Today
AN ADDRESS BY Donald MacDonald,
PRESIDENT, CANADIAN LABOUR CONGRESS
CHAIRMAN The President,
Edward B. Jolliffe, Q.C.
Some thirty years ago, the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who knew our Maritime Provinces quite well, was sailing off the shores of Cape Breton, and called in at a small port which I need not name. A group of leaders in the local community, headed by the Mayor, were welcomed aboard and introduced one by one to the President: a MacNeill, a Gillis, a MacInnis, a Muir, Morrison, MacEachen. When the introductions were complete, the President raised his hands in utter disbelief: "What!" he said--"No Macdonalds".
We do not have that problem today.
Our distinguished guest is a member of the famous MacDonald clan, or clans, Cape Breton branch, which was chartered long before Governor Simcoe ever saw the Don Valley. However, he himself was born in Halifax and was educated at the Sydney Academy and St. Francis Xavier University, which has more recently made him a Doctor of Laws. He was educated also as a coal miner, became President of Local 4560 of the United Mine Workers, when he was only 21, anal a leading member of the Credit Union and Cooperative Movement of Cape Breton which did much pioneer work in that field, including co-operative housing. Mr. MacDonald was elected to the Nova Scotia Legislature in 1941 and led his party in that historic house through four years. He was Regional Director of the Canadian Congress of Labour and in 1951 became its National Secretary-Treasurer, continuing in that office when the Canadian Labour Congress was formed. He is a member of the Executive Board of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the Central Council of the Canadian Red Cross and the National Committee for UNESCO. In May of this year he was elected President of the Canadian Labour Congress representing more than three-quarters of all union members in this country. Our speaker today Mr. Donald MacDonald.
It is a very great honour to have the privilege of addressing you today. The reputation of The Empire Club of Canada as a forum for discussion by representatives of various groups is probably without equal in Canada. It seems to me that there has seldom, if ever, been a time in our history when there was so great a need for such discussion. Sharp differences of opinion and various forms of conflict seem to have become almost the order of the day.
We in the trade union movement are inevitably involved in areas of differences, and I therefore welcome this opportunity to discuss with you some of the matters that are of the greatest concern to us at the moment. I am well aware that many of you, probably the majority, are in one way or another allied with management and so are inclined to find yourselves, from time to time, in disagreement with some of the actions and policies of the organized labour movement.
It would, perhaps, be a little too much to hope that within the next few minutes I may be able to convert you into ardent trade unionists; but at least I hope I may be able to use this opportunity to explain to you, however, briefly, our attitude on several matters that have become public issues.
I have spoken of the prevalence of conflict. We find a restlessness, in some instances vague and in others very specific, being voiced by various sections of society and in many parts of the world. This is so general and often so forceful, that it cannot be brushed aside as a passing fad.
There is a widespread dissatisfaction on the part of a great many people and, as never before, they are giving voice to their sentiments. There are doubtless many reasons for this, but I would suggest that one of the chief causes is our failure to keep pace in human and social terms with the tremendous strides in scientific and technological advance that we have witnessed in the past few years. This is obvious in many areas.
We, as trade unionists, are primarily, and indeed solely, concerned with the welfare of people. We are naturally concerned with the well-being of those men and women whom we number among our members as trade unionists; but we also have a very deep concern--which has always been evident in the trade union movement--for all those who may be regarded as ordinary working people. We feel that, regardless of whether or not they happen to hold trade union cards, we have a responsibility to speak for them. It is of that relationship that I speak to you today.
Actual trade union membership in Canada now stands at well over two million, the highest figure in our history. I have noted that The Empire Club of Canada came into existence in 1903. In that year there were barely 125,000 union members in Canada. This growth is both interesting and significant because in recent years we have been hearing repeated forecasts about the decline of union organization. A good many of those who have access to public attention through the mass media and by other means, were not so long ago solemnly declaring that the day of union organization was nearing an end. The wish may have been the father of the thought; but certainly their predictions were wide of the mark.
In fact they are considerably wider of the mark than this figure of well over two million because, in addition to these men and women holding membership in recognized trade unions there are many thousands in organizations and associations which, while not formally regarded as unions, and often very shy about identifying themselves as unions, are functioning in exactly the same way as unions and are engaged very vigorously in collective bargaining. A more realistic combined figure would be 2,500,000.
It is, of course, in the area of bargaining that unions experience the sharpest conflict. This has particularly been the case in the past year or two, but unfortunately those on the sidelines often get exaggerated or misleading impressions about what is going on.
During 1967, for example, negotiations resulted in a number of important settlements which provided for wage increases. The impression was spread abroad that large numbers of union members were suddenly pocketing a 30% wage increase. This was outright nonsense. In the instances where 30% settlements were obtained they were usually for three-year contracts. And, apart from this, a more careful observation would disclose that the workers involved had for one reason or another lagged behind and they had reached the point where a catching-up process could no longer be delayed.
Government figures show that in major settlements the 1967 increases averaged about 7.6%. Recent figures covering wage developments under major collective agreements in the first part of 1968 show that average hourly base rates rose by just over 7% in the 12 months ended June 30.
I am by no means trying to disguise the fact that we have been going through a period of sharp conflict and that there has been a substantial increase in the number of disputes resulting in work stoppages. This is, to say the least, unfortunate; and we share the concern which is generally felt.
Speaking as one who for a good many years has carried some degree of responsibility in the organized labour movement, I can tell you that those in such positions, quite as much as anyone else, enjoy an atmosphere of industrial peace far more than one of conflict.
It is regrettable that it is not always possible to maintain such an atmosphere. We live for the most part in a free enterprise economy. The determination of wages and working conditions is subject to negotiation between the parties concerned. This method is part of the whole democratic structure and we, with many others, value it highly.
Under some circumstances this process breaks down. I would emphasize as strongly as I can that the percentage of such breakdowns is extremely small. But they do occur, and then we are confronted with work stoppages or strikes and sometimes--increasingly in recent experiences--lockouts. This is a price which we have to pay for preservation of the democratic process of collective bargaining; and it is a price we are going to have to continue to pay unless and until someone evolves a better method of settling disputes.
There is, of course, a great deal of effort being directed toward the discovery of some better solution. Never in all our history have there been so many enquiries, commissions, committees and probes on a single subject as there have been in recent months, and still are, with regard to the whole area of employer-employee relations.
As always, there are those who would rush in with easy answers. The most popular instant solution suggested is compulsory arbitration--the imposition of a settlement by a third party.
Compulsory arbitration simply will not work. I am well aware that I am repeating what has been said by many in the past; but those who advocate this approach insist on repeating themselves and we can hardly be expected to remain silent.
This opposition to compulsory arbitration is by no means confined to those of us who are active trade unionists.
I would like to quote to you from a recent article in the Financial Post--hardly a pro-union publication. This is a digest of a paper given by Dr. H. D. Woods, at the annual meeting of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. You may be aware that Dr. Woods heads the federal government's Task Force which has been spending the past 18 months in a study of industrial relations.
Dr. Woods is quoted in these words:
"If, under public pressure, governments in Canada introduce compulsion in the settlement of labour-management disputes, it is not merely the industrial relations system that would be radically altered, but the enterprise system itself.
Both management and labour have a stake in the success of collective bargaining as a major feature in the industrial relations system . . . . Even some employer groups have privately urged the Task Force not to recommend taking away the right to strike."
And at a later point, Dr. Woods is further quoted as saying:
"What is at stake is not merely whether strikes are to be permitted, but whether the whole system of private decision-making for individuals, unions, and employers, is to be preserved and strengthened by policy and administrative reforms, or to be emasculated by creeping public intervention that will involve more decisions by public bodies and less by the parties."
Dr. Woods is by no means alone in this view. The Hon. Bryce Mackasey, Minister of Labour, speaking in the House of Commons a few weeks ago, declared the position of the government, of which he is a member, to be strongly in support of collective bargaining as we know it. He went on to say:
"If the pursuit of this belief leads to a situation where national strikes occur, causing inconveniences and some times short term hardships, then that is the price Canadians must be prepared to pay for our type of freedom."
Finally, might I quote the Minister of Labour in my own native province of Nova Scotia, the Hon. Dr. Thomas McKeough, who told a recent meeting:
"I want to say categorically that as long as I am Minister of Labour, there will be no restrictive labour legislation put on the statute books because it is not justified if you take an analytical look at the record. I believe in the free collective bargaining process in Nova Scotia because it works, and nobody can tell me any different."
Unions are already subject to a great many restrictions. Before a union can gain recognition and the right to bargain for its members it is required to follow a detailed and often lengthy procedure to gain certification from a government board. This precedes any actual bargaining.
Then there are further regulations covering the actual bargaining process which may have to follow a tortuous course, finally arriving at the conciliation stage where the union is required to establish its case before a board to justify its proposals for contract provisions.
This is now the law of the land and it is the procedure which unions are required to follow. It is therefore hardly surprising that when there are suggestions of wage guidelines we point out that we are already subject to all these restrictions; while those on the management side of the table are free to adjust price schedules. We say that any effort to apply additional restraints on the efforts of workers to better themselves is highly unfair, in the absence, at the very least, of similar controls being applied to both prices and profits.
But let me turn to another area.
I suggest to you, in all earnestness, that as well as actively seeking methods to improve employee--employer relations, we should more seriously and actively address ourselves to seeking solutions to the conditions which often contribute to conflict.
The whole matter of poverty has suddenly come into the limelight and achieved a high priority position in public discussion. I spoke at the outset of the widespread unrest which prevails in so many quarters today. There are those who are surprised and dismayed by the fact that many Canadians are unhappy and discontented. How can they expect otherwise when one person in every five in our nation lives under conditions of poverty, and many more are not far above the poverty line?
For all too long there has been an effort to sweep poverty under the rug, to pretend it isn't there. It is all too easy these days to climb into a high-powered car and choose a by-pass around a poverty area.
But these areas are there. Poverty does exist, as the Economic Council of Canada has now made abundantly clear. Poverty has been known to the labour movement since its earliest days. In fact the early unions, and a great many since, were formed in an effort by workers to overcome conditions of poverty. I think it is fair to say that the labour movement, over the years, has done considerably more than most other groups to fight poverty.
This does not mean that we are satisfied with our efforts, or that we are today completely fulfilling our responsibilities. Rather, it is our hope that the new attention being given to poverty will both arouse others and strengthen our own efforts.
It is in the area of poverty that our failure to translate into human and social terms the great scientific and technical advances we have made is most apparent. Economic growth and technology have reached a point where there can no longer be any excuse for poverty. We have the capacity to give every man, woman and child all that is required for a decent and a healthy existence. We can produce goods and services in unlimited quantities. We are at times embarrassed by the abundance of what we can produce.
And yet we fail dismally when it comes to making an equitable distribution of our production.
I happen to live in our nation's capital. We were recently told that Ottawa's welfare department expects to overspend its 1968 budget by some $2,000,000 to provide what it describes as "minimum care" for the poor who live in the capital of Canada, the country with the second highest living standard in the world.
Mr. Stuart Godfrey, Ottawa's welfare commissioner, made this comment:
"Malnutrition is a very real danger. Unless we continue to help these people such diseases as tuberculosis, rickets and beriberi soon will begin to take their toll."
And if we turn our attention to another Ontario community, namely Picton, we find a group of workers on strike for month after month in an effort to raise wage rates that were in some instances below the level of unemployment insurance benefit payments. These are workers who produce well known electrical products sold in stores from one end of Canada to the other.
The Ontario government, only a few days ago, announced an increase in minimum wages. In the main the minimum is raised from $1 an hour to $1.30. On the basis of a 40-hour week, 50 weeks a year, this means an annual income of $2,600-below the poverty level defined by the Economic Council for even small families. I would point out that the Ontario government's action--too little and too late in my estimation--followed an Ontario Labour Department survey which showed that in knitting mills, the clothing industry and the retail trade, anywhere from 20 to 24 per cent of the employees now earn less than $1.25 an hour. In such service operations as laundries and cleaning and pressing shops the percentage rises to 34.8 per cent who earn less than that amount.
Many hundreds of thousands of Canadian families who enjoy employment conditions superior to these are, nevertheless, caught in a tight squeeze by economic circumstances. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the matter of housing. It is now finally recognized that we are in a crisis situation as far as housing is concerned. A great many Canadian families are confronted with the fact that, under today's conditions, they have absolutely no hope of ever owning a home of their own. This applies to a majority of Canadian families, those with annual incomes below $8,000. Their only hope for adequate housing is a dependence on subsidies.
Our record in this respect is extremely poor. Canada spends far less, proportionately, on public housing than does the United States or Western European countries. In the period 1964 to 1968 loans for public housing constituted only six per cent of the federal government's investment in housing.
I am not suggesting that the blame, by any means, rests solely with the federal government. As of June of this year only 96 municipalities in all Canada had taken advantage of the public housing provisions of the National Housing Act.
We are at a point where we can expect new family formations for the balance of the 1960s to average about 108,000 a year. This is a considerable increase from the 72,000 we experienced in the 1960-66 period. It has been estimated that this trend will bring our housing demand to about 180,000 units annually for the next few years; and we still have a backlog of 250,000 to 300,000 units.
One could speak at great length about our housing crisis but time does not allow this today. I have referred to housing because I feel it illustrates our failure to adequately cope with some of the major social problems that confront us.
Our Canadian trade union movement is a social, as well as an economic organization and it has, to put it mildly, an abundance of experience in meeting strong opposition whenever we exert our efforts toward social advances. This was true years ago when such basic ideas as workmen's compensation and unemployment insurance were advanced. It is true today with regard to both housing and medicare.
Let me point out that social expenditures fall into two categories. One is a cost-sharing plan under which people pool costs and share the expense. This is basically what we seek in medicare. I have always been unable to understand why the pooling of risks and costs under the supervision of a private profit-making agency is regarded as a worthy undertaking and evidence of sound citizenship; while a similar process on a completely cooperative basis, publicly owned and controlled, arouses the most bitter opposition.
The other form of social welfare expenditure is the provision of assistance to meet otherwise unfilled needs. As far as this is concerned our costs could be considerably reduced if we directed more attention toward reducing the need. The prevalence of poverty makes this abundantly clear. It has been estimated in the United States that one poor man can cost the public as much as $140,000 between the ages of 17 and 57, and I suppose the figures for Canada would not be too different.
It seems obvious to me that medicare--in the main--falls into the first category. We have been continually told, particularly by those who are opposed to medicare, that a high percentage of Canadians are now participating in various forms of health insurance plans operated privately. This being the case, the grouping of these people into a plan under public auspices seems to me to be elementary common sense. At the same time such a comprehensive plan can provide medical care to people who most need it, without the stigma of means tests that can undermine the whole principle of the plan and result in some of those who have the greatest need failing to take advantage of it.
It is because of sentiments such as these that we have very strong feelings with regard to medicare. This is something for which we, and many others, have fought for a long time. I am afraid that once again we are witnessing storm signals giving a warning of the danger of still further postponements or a weakening of the plan.
If this happens I, for one, will regard it as one of the greatest sellouts that has ever been imposed on the Canadian people. It is no secret that the government has been under very heavy pressure from groups which have their own particular financial interest in maintaining the mish-mash of medical protection which now exists.
The latest line of attack, tied in with the recent budget, is to try again to sell the idea that we in Canada cannot afford medicare. Well let me say that if we, in this rich country with one of the highest standards of living in the world, cannot afford to provide the best possible medical service for all our people, as a matter of right, then there is something radically wrong with our values.
The fact is that we can afford it. Let me quote just a paragraph of what the Hon. Mr. Benson had to say about this in his budget address, a comment which unfortunately seemed to be largely lost in the budget reports:
"We should note that new government expenditures for medical care will be mainly replacing payments by individuals for the same purpose or payments made through existing private or public plans. Only a fraction of the cost will constitute an increasing demand upon the economy, but the result should be a fairer and more efficient system of assuring health care for all Canadians regardless of income."
I am sure you are aware that a meeting between federal and provincial officials is planned in the very near future. It is to be hoped that the federal government will remain firm and fulfill the promise it has made to the Canadian people. To say that adequate service is already being provided is simply not true. It seems that every few weeks in some part of the country we have the disgusting performance of radio announcers or newspapers pleading for public subscriptions so that some poor child or other individual can receive urgently needed medical or surgical attention that is not normally available.
Why isn't it available?
There has been talk and promises of a comprehensive medical plan in this country since 1919. Country after country--many of them regarded as relatively poor and far less developed than Canada--have provided service for their people. We were told that the Canadian people would have the benefits of such a plan in our Centennial Year of 1967a most appropriate, if somewhat belated birthday present. Then the promise was withdrawn with the most devout declarations that 1968 would be the year.
It is true, of course, that this year there has been a start on the programme. But now we find the big propaganda guns booming again in an effort to force a watering down and to undercut the effective implementation of the kind of plan that Canadians can and should have.
I am well aware that I have spoken with some heat on this subject. I make no apology. This seems to me a crystal clear example of our failure to recognize and grapple with fundamental human needs.
Perhaps some of you may regard my remarks to you as being somewhat pessimistic. I suggest that if we fail to grapple with the day's problems on a human basis then our future is indeed pessimistic. On the other hand, if we extend every effort to apply our new knowledge and facilities toward the creation of a better life for all people--and I mean all people, not just Canadians--then the future can indeed be bright, a far brighter one than has ever been known.
This is the fundamental challenge that confronts us. The great advances of civilization are not to be found in the laboratories of scientists, important as they may be; they are to be found in the homes and the hearts of the people.
The time has come for us to reassess our values and to put into meaningful effect the humanitarian principles which we are often so quick to voice but so nervous about acting on.
Thanks of the meeting were expressed by Mr. Graham M. Gore.