Key player in war on poverty – comment – Key player in war on poverty
January 17, 2008
John Cartwright

Poverty reduction has been identified as the Number 1 challenge for 2008. The issue has been front-page news in all the major Toronto media, and now the Ontario government has concurred. The United Way’s Losing Ground report, followed by U of T’s The Three Cities within Toronto, each show in the starkest terms the impact of the new economy on Toronto residents.

As Toronto’s poverty rate grows, so must our political will to tackle its root causes. But to actually do that there has to be an admission that the dramatic expansion of poverty is directly related to low income and jobs that don’t pay a living wage. Then we have to look at history. What elements were put in place in past years to create the framework for what one prime minister sought to describe as a “just society”?

The notion of a just society is at the heart of Canadian life. In a sense it is the Canadian dream, centring more on the collective spirit than on mere individualism. Building on this dream, we created institutions that helped extend fairness and opportunity to everyone. Universal health care, quality public schools, unemployment insurance and a strong social safety net are just some of the examples of what was undertaken in the past.

For working people, the best anti-poverty program has been collective action to improve wages and benefits. Unions have historically played this role by providing workers with a means for collective action – often across entire sectors of the economy. Manufacturing jobs were once only a source of poverty wages, until the mass unionization efforts of the 1940s. Governments in Canada and the U.S. created a legal framework to curtail the power of business and create some balance in the workplace. Today, extending the voice that unions provide to more workers across the economy is a crucial building block in the campaign against poverty.

Recent protests by temporary workers excluded from the benefits of labour standards and paid holidays point to the growing need for more workers to have a voice at work. Labour laws need to reflect the changing workplace. With more than 40 per cent of workers who came to Canada between 1990 and 1999 earning less than a poverty wage, the exclusion of new Canadians from the benefits of work threatens not only the dream of a just society but the social fabric of society itself.

Without unions a balance of power in the workplace doesn’t exist. Unions help to ensure that as the economy grows so do opportunities for everyone. National wealth does little good if it is being squandered by the super-rich on luxury items while those at the other end of the economic scale are struggling with two or three jobs. Our nation’s wealth should allow for families to have time together, for people to have affordable places to live, for health needs to be met and for communities to thrive.

Government has a role in ensuring that the rights of workers be protected and that voices of workers be heard. The best way to protect these rights is by respecting the rights of workers to form unions so that they can have a direct say in their future. Ordinary people can then demand a living wage, good working conditions, fairness and equity at work, and advance the principles of a just society through collective action.

Unions have a basic role in demanding that the rights of all workers be respected. By taking the lead in the fight for the $10 minimum wage and advocating on behalf of vulnerable workers, Toronto’s unions continue to demonstrate our commitment to those who are trapped in poverty-level jobs. But we also fight for strong public services and social programs that are a key element in our quality of life.

The fight against poverty and for a just society requires that we strengthen our commitment to every Canadian. These efforts must start with the political will to both rebuild existing institutions and to fashion new ones. Our history shows that working together through collective action is absolutely essential if we are to start seriously tackling poverty in 2008.

John Cartwright is president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council.

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