Recently, I had a thought-provoking visit to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg.
The museum is not only a fascinating collection of the history of human rights around the world, but also a magnificent architectural masterpiece intentionally designed to illustrate the stories displayed within. The stories I encountered were a combination of those I had learned in school, and those I had never heard of.
Such as the plight of Viola Desmond, who was not allowed in a Nova Scotia movie theater because of the colour of her skin. I was also particularly surprised to learn of the high rate of anti-Semitism that existed in Canada in the 1930s and 1940s—which explains why Canada accepted fewer Jewish refugees than any other Allied nation.
The history of human rights atrocities includes periods of rampant exploitation of labour—including child labour. We tend to judge history through the lens of today’s wisdom, and that includes the history of labour relations. Many people think that unions are a thing of the past and do not serve modern society. After all, the struggle against past atrocities has been won, has it not?
There is no doubt that unions have made impressive gains for working people, particularly in the West. Health and safety provisions, benefits and retirement plans, fair wages—these are just a few of the things that unions provide today.
Despite these gains, workers and unions continue to face threats—globalism, technology, the growth of precarious work, to name a few. And around the world, many workers continue to be exploited. Child labour, the sex trade, and slave labour are still rampant in some parts of the world.
In our own country, I’ve seen hundreds of circumstances where unions have provided tremendous value to the people and communities they serve. I’ve witnessed countless times where one of our members could have fallen into despair had we not been there for them to stand in the gap and give them hope.
We as a union cannot become complacent. If we think we’ve arrived, then the union detractors are probably right—we no longer need unions.
A quick look at the world today is enough to see that we haven’t arrived. The same ill-hearted motives of the past still lurk within us today, creating a strong need for social support organizations like unions to help make people’s lives and their communities better.