The labour of the human hand and brain, applied to the natural wealth of the world is the only source of wealth. Even gold has to be wrested from the earth, separated from rock and base elements and refined to purity.
Those who dominate society and claim ownership of its bounty still require workers to turn the potential wealth into actual things of value. Whether it is recognized or not, without the skills of Labour, none can be rich. The dependence of the rich on Labour to maintain their life styles of over-consumption and hoarding has been a constant worry to them and though their brains may play little role in production, the wealthy have worked overtime thinking of ways to increase the wealth extracted from each worker, to reduce the amount each worker receives and to make sure ideas of democracy and equality do not take root in working people.
Every era has gone through a period of concentration of wealth. In Ancient Rome, the big land owners took over the common lands being farmed by independent small farmers and assembled huge estates. At first, the displaced small farmers worked as day labourers for wages. Soon wealthy Romans displaced the citizens who worked their land for wages with slaves taken by conquest, over whom they had the power of life and death.
No wages needed be paid as the, once proud, dispossessed Roman citizens were forced into a wretched life in the cities. The Urban poor were used by ambitious politicians as mobs to pressure opponents and to provide the soldiers for the never ending wars. Reduced to taking the dole (grain rations), the proles (urban poor) became pawns in the machinations of the political elite.
Only the essential skilled workers such as shoemakers, leather workers, cart drivers and ships captains, organized in collegia or guilds managed to maintain some control of their lives. These guilds were not trade unions in the way we know them but they were mutual support societies who could negotiate terms such as wages and political rights. In the later Roman Empire, when obligations to the state in labour and taxes became onerous, members of the bread bakers’ guild, for example, were exempt. But, by Imperial Decree, they were locked in from birth to be bread bakers and could not leave the trade.
In the countryside, the treatment of slaves led to several large revolts, culminating in the uprising led by Spartacus. Fielding an army of over a hundred thousand escaped slaves, Spartacus defeated many Roman armies but he only sought return the ex-slaves to their foreign homes. He never attempted to destroy the Roman slave state. Eventually trapped after the army had split, all the slaves involved were killed in battle or by crucifixion. With the establishment of the Roman Empire by Augustus Caesar, the Roman state maintained large standing armies and no further slave revolts were possible.
In the Middle Ages, slavery was converted to serfdom, where the peasants were tied to the land of their feudal lord. Only in the Guilds did craftsmen retain some rights, but it must be noted most Guilds were for the merchant classes and not the skilled trades. These Commercial Guilds evolved to become municipal government. The Guild master had absolute control over Guild members and Guilds cannot be compared with a modern democratic Union.
With the coming of the Industrial Age, the old feudal structures were swept away. The newly freed serfs flooded into the cities to feed the voracious factories which consumed human lives as much as resources to produce their product. It was in that crucible, that our modern Unions were born.
The Skilled Tradesmen banded together to improve their conditions and to challenge the bosses’ stranglehold on politics.
While American Unions generally refused to enter politics in the 19th century, in Canada Trades and Labour Councils often fielded candidates to advocate Labour Demands such as the nine, and then eight hour day.
Voting rights were restricted to male property owners until the First World War, but many Journeymen did own their homes. Though Labour candidates rarely won, the establishment parties saw the support they drew and would adopt planks from the Labour platform to gain their vote in the next election. In this way many of the greatest advances in Canadian society have been achieved this way. From the Eight Hour Day to Medicare, establishment parties have introduced these measures to court the Labour vote.
The right to join a Union or bargain collectively was not always recognized. the first Unions were considered organized crime, evil syndicates preying on their hard pressed employers. Even after the political right to organize was won, through all manner of threat, intimidation, courts and police, the owners did all they could to frustrate the workers and their Unions. It was not until after the Second World War Unions in Canada finally won the recognition and the membership to become a leading force in society. The Ford strike in Windsor and the hard fought struggles at Stelco in Hamilton finally tipped the balance and Union membership as a percentage of the workforce reached its peak in the 1980s at 38%.
Since then, though the total number of members has increased, Union density, as a percentage of the total labour force, has declined to slightly below 30%. Public sector employees make up a large block, as private sector Union rates have slipped.
A large part of the decline in private sector unions is a result of the shifting of production overseas to exploit cheap, non-union labour internationally and so curb the influence of workers’ organizations at home.
This is the point we find ourselves at today. We are not losing members to de-certification but every plant closure takes another big block of members and throws them into the street.
The influence and prestige of Unions in BC remains high and every employer knows if he treats his employees poorly, a Union will organize his operations. For this reason, many non-union employers pay at, or higher, than Union rates. It is not the cost of higher wages but loss of total control they fear. When an employer can no longer hire and fire as he pleases, when workers have dignity and the backing of their fellow Unionist, the game is never the same.
And so we come to the quandary of modern Unions. Canadian Unions have, in the most part, done a good job of representing their Members, getting better wages and working conditions, curbing the arbitrary power of the owners and gaining the workers respect. But as our membership base shrinks, our Unions are having trouble continuing to finance the service the Members need and deserve.
Non-union employees do not always see the need of Union Membership as they enjoy a portion of the benefits Unions have won. And threats and intimidation are still practised by many employers in response of a Union drive.
Our Machinist Union in BC has lost members due to the economic trouble of the last few years, nothing like the losses of our American brothers but the strain is still there. Your District has resources to carry us over this rough patch but unless we bring in new blood, the Machinists in BC will be diminished to the detriment of current Members and BC as a whole.
As our traditional types of businesses are generally either Union or paying near Union rates, the Machinists in Canada are looking to non-traditional sectors desperately in need of Union solidarity. In Ontario, our Union has been signing up the people who transport patients between hospitals. In BC, we need to talk to our neighbours and friends to see who needs our support.
Your District prioritizes organizing. Though we will concentrate on our traditional industries, for the future of our Union, we are going to places and talking to people we never considered before.