The dominant narrative about Alberta’s economy is a compelling one, and very easy to get caught up in: one of the fastest-growing economies in North America, low unemployment, record levels of new investment and profits galore in oil and gas, the province’s main industry. But there is another side to this story, one that tends to get ignored and brushed under the carpet, especially by the government and the mainstream media.
It shows that the real wages of Alberta’s 99 percent have largely stagnated since 1982, that Alberta has among the highest rates of workplace injury and death in North America and that Alberta has the most unequal income distribution in the country.
A report released last week by the Parkland Institute does a great job of explaining one of the key reasons for that dark side of the story: Alberta’s declining unionization rates and labour-unfriendly government.
It is well known that unionized employees fare better in terms of wages than non-unionized workers.
In Alberta union wages are, on average, $4.75 per hour (18 percent) higher than non-union wages. The report highlights that this is especially significant for women and young workers, who do significantly better in union than non-union environments.
What is not commonly acknowledged, however, is that in areas with high-union density, those unions also serve the purpose of putting upward pressure on all wages. When compared to economic performance, the performance of wages in Alberta has been far lower than in other provinces with higher union density. In other words, higher union density in Alberta would have resulted in more of the province’s staggering GDP growth going to workers. As it stands, almost all of this growth has gone to profit, and almost none of it to wages.
In 2013 in Alberta, 173 workers died on the job. That number represents an increase of almost 20 percent over the previous year. The Parkland report uses data from other jurisdictions to draw a direct correlation between unionization rates and workplace safety. Unions allow workers to participate directly in ensuring their workplaces are safe and, in the process, actually empower workers to refuse unsafe work. This direct participation and willingness to refuse is something that happens far less in non-unionized environments for fear of repercussions. Here, too, the evidence is clear that as a result of union lobbying and advocacy, jurisdictions with high unionization rates tend to have better workplace health and safety legislation and enforcement and far lower rates of workplace injury and death.
The report’s final finding is perhaps the most damning of the government’s anti-union bias. It turns out that there is a direct correlation between union density and greater income equality. Graph after graph in the report shows that as unionization rates in Alberta go down, inequality increases in direct proportion. This is not just because of the impact on wages, but also because a strong union sector plays a critical role in organizing and mobilizing for policies that serve the public interest like public health care, a strong public education system and a strong social safety net. There is a huge amount of evidence out there today, including from sources as radical as the World Bank and the Conference Board, demonstrating the negative impacts of inequality on factors as varied as economic growth, health-care costs and outcomes, education outcomes, crime rates and numerous others.
The evidence is overwhelming. The dark side of the story of Alberta’s economic success is that it is disproportionately benefitting only the top one percent of income earners and actually doing damage to Alberta’s workers and the public interest in general.
Given all of this, it should be a no-brainer for a government interested in promoting the public interest to ensure a union-friendly policy environment: one that would make it easier for workers to unionize and for unions to properly represent their collective interests. In Alberta, however, we have consistently seen our government move in the other direction, instituting policies which make unionization incredibly difficult and bills aimed at restricting the powers of unions, their collective bargaining rights and even the pensions and retirement security of workers. Does the government just not get it? Or is it rather that they fully get it and are happy to continue governing for their friends in the one percent at the expense of everyone else? Either way, it’s clearly time for a change in direction—the workers who have built this province deserve no less. V
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.