Reality Check: Unions build equality for everyone

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When a pundit or politician attacks unions, they’re really attacking equality for everyone, and for women in particular.
Unions and the public sector – and public sector unions especially – are no strangers to criticism. In the wake of the Great Recession, perhaps it should be no surprise that attacks are more vociferous than when times are better for everyone. It is important not to lose sight of the contributions unions and the public sector have made to progress, not least for women.
Two recent publications point to the good that unions do. In its report, the Broadbent Institute includes a Canadian version of a chart showing that higher rates of unionization are accompanied by a decline in income inequality. The Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights illustrates the same fact using the Gini coefficient as a measure of inequality. Both studies point to the positive influence unions have beyond the workplace in ensuring fairer wages, social programs, and public services that benefit everyone.
A Statistics Canada examination of wage trends attributed some of the progress in closing the gender pay gap to the relative importance of unionization for women’s wages. Closing the gap may also be due to the role of the public sector as the foremost employer of women. About 70 per cent of employees in the public sector (utilities, education, health and social services, and public administration) are women, compared to 40 per cent across other industries. And about three-quarters of public employees are unionized, compared to less than 20 per cent in the private sector.
It’s not surprising that the Canadian Union of Public Employees found that the marginal, half per cent “premium” in earnings received by public employees is entirely due to more equitable pay for female public servants.

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