Shirley Carr on unions, 1986

In this speech in 1986, Canadian Labour Congress president Shirley Carr said unions must participate in economic decision making

Shirley Carr was the first woman to lead the Canadian Labour Congress. She could be blunt,as indicated in this speech made to a Canadian Club audience in 1986, shortly after her becoming CLC president. Employers and governments, she said, must recognize that unions are legitimate representatives of the interests of working people, and should be accepted as actors on the national scene.

“You can fight us or learn to accept us as a legitimate actor”

I accepted the invitation to speak to the Canadian Club because it afforded me the opportunity to deliver a message to the business community in Canada. The text of this message is our view of society and the role of the trade union movement in it.

The premise and philosophy upon which my views are based is one in which trade unions are the legitimate representatives of working peoples’ interests. We have a role to play in Canadian society as the voice of their interests and our views are as legitimate as any other — including that of business.

The real issue here is that there are many in Canada who reject this legitimacy — some of whom are present in this room. We see and read about it day-in and day-out in the major conflicts between labor and management from one side of the country to the other. I will return to this point later in my speech, but the facts of life are, you can accept us as a legitimate and permanent feature of Canadian society or you can fight us. The choice is yours!

Hostility to unions

A major source of the hostility to the trade unions in Canada is imported from the United States. It is not uncommon for employers in Canada to take their lead from their U.S. parent corporations. The decimation of the air traffic controller’s union by Reagan, the battle over concessions — all are imports from the United States that business and conservative politicians try to emulate here in Canada. Deregulation and privatization are two further imports from the United States with a heavy dose of Thatcherism thrown in for good measure. In our view, all of these actions are directed at workers and their unions to destroy them; or at the very least, to render them impotent as a national force . . .

What I am saying to you is that you can import the U.S. experience if you wish, but what works down there won’t necessarily work up here, or be accepted by the Canadian community or its politicians.

Employers in this country have used the high rate of unemployment in Canada as a weapon against workers and unions. Employer after employer has come to the bargaining table demanding concessions from workers.

Here to stay

Employers somehow believe it is there God-given right to destroy trade unions and the standard of living of their employees. All we have to do is look at what is happening on the west coast with the Woodworkers and the forest products industry; with the workers at the Gainer’s plant in Alberta; and in numerous other smaller towns and cities across Canada. The banks right here in Toronto are another prime example of employers who would deny freedom of association and the right to free collective bargaining to their employees. The list goes on and on. If you get no other message from me today; remember, we are here to stay and in spite of all the efforts of anti-union employers and their friendly governments the trade unions continue to grow in influence and power. Under my tenure as President of the Congress this forward progress is going to continue if I have anything to say about it.

On an annual basis ‘Corporate Canada’ is one of the biggest beneficiaries of federal government largesse. Tax expenditures to ‘Corporate Canada’ are equal to the federal deficit annually.

The corporate community has gone to the government time after time complaining that corporate taxes were too high and that investment would increase if some relief was forthcoming. This has been a familiar theme at budget time for many years now.

Governments believed what corporations were telling them and dutifully reduced the corporate tax rate budget after budget to please them. Gradually over the past decade the tax burden has fallen heavier and heavier on the middle class and lower income earners and lighter and lighter on the corporations . . .

Free trade

In the past six months we have embarked upon one of the most intensive campaigns ever undertaken by the Congress. We have taken the position at our Convention that bilateral free trade with the United States is a threat to Canadian sovereignty and jobs. The United States has demanded a level playing field.

They want our social programs reduced to the same miserable level as their own; they want unemployment insurance benefits reduced; they would destroy medicare in Canada because they have none in the United States; they would end transfer payments to our poorer regions because they are unfair subsidies. In labor’s view our parliamentary system of government is put at risk by a federal Conservative government that is incompetent, unreliable and when it comes to these negotiations, untrustworthy in letting the Canadian people know what is on the table. The emulation of the Mulroney government of the Reagan administration’s deregulation and privatization program, in our view, is a national disgrace.

Canadians built this nation through hard work, cooperation and collective effort. That effort was channeled through past governments that understood that if we were to build a nation it would be in spite of, not because of geography and circumstance. We overcame the natural north-south pull and directed our attention to east and west to build this nation.

The present [Conservative] government would deny our history and our nationhood by destroying our national transportation and communications systems in favor of the ‘natural economic’ forces that Conservatives espouse as economic dogma.

Managed trade

Let me be very clear on the issue of our trading relationship with the United States and the world. Canada has survived because it is a trading nation. The Congress understands this very well. We need our export markets. These markets mean jobs for Canadians and a higher standard of living. Seventy-five percent of everything we export goes to the United States. We support sectoral negotiations with the United States, similar to the auto pact, but not comprehensive trade deals that threaten our sovereignty as a nation.

We also support and have been long standing advocates of freer trade through the GATT. It is our position that we should continue in our efforts to increase our exports to the EEC, third world nations, and the Pacific rim countries, particularly Japan and China. It is labor’s position that these are the avenues to greater prosperity as a sovereign nation.

In this respect, the Congress has long criticized governments and business for not investing and supporting a broader and more highly diversified manufacturing infrastructure for our natural resource base. Why should we be an exporter of raw materials and an importer of finished products? The net result of this historically has been a loss of well paid jobs and an increased vulnerability to economic downturns than would otherwise have been the case.

Guiding principles

We have a guiding set of principles which we follow and against which we evaluate change. These are: Do these changes lead to a more caring and compassionate society? Is there an equitable sharing of the burden of change?

When we look at what has been happening in Canadian society we can only conclude that the costs and benefits are not being share equitably.

We find an intolerably high rate of joblessness of 1.5 million unemployed, and the wealthy and Conservative government calling for a reduction in U.I. benefits.

We find older workers thrown out of work with little or no hope for retraining, relocation or finding another job.

We find the introduction of technology preceding at an ever increasing rate with the workers or their unions given no opportunity to participate or have a say in its introduction.

We find small communities trying to survive after the single major industry shuts down.

We find employer after employer refusing to accept the principle of pay equity for women.

The burden of dislocation and so-called progress is falling on the shoulders of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

It is our believe that employers have a major responsibility to their employees and the larger community. It is not just good enough to give two weeks’ notice and then shut the operation down, or lay off workers.

In many cases the corporations which are shutting down or moving their operations offshore are the recipients of public funding through the tax system, whether in the form of direct subsidies, grants, or tax forgiveness. The workers you are laying off helped to subsidize your operations out of their own pockets through their tax dollars and they have a right to expect better treatment than what they have been getting up to now . . .  

National forum

For the past number of years the Congress has been working with the major employer organization Canada to develop a national institution made up of senior business and labor representatives. The purpose of such a permanent institution would be to provide a forum where national issues of mutual interest could be debated. I am speaking here of the Canadian Labour Market and Productivity Centre . . .

It has been a time consuming effort that to date has not produced the hoped for results when it was established two years ago. The Centre is now undergoing a major restructuring which all parties hope will lead to a more useful organization in terms of getting at the real problems confronting our  country.

But let me tell you one thing. There is a tremendous amount of opposition to the CLC participation in this Centre from our affiliates and our rank and file members. They ask a legitimate question. Why are we sitting down talking to these blankety-blanks when they are kicking us all over the lot every chance they get? You have to admit it is a relevant question and one I personally have difficulty sometimes.

Clear message

My message to you today is clear. You can’t have it both ways.

You can’t kick us around and expect us to be prepared to meet with you at the same time. Again, the ball is in your court.

You can fight us or learn to accept us as a legitimate actor on the national scene.


Speech to Canadian Club of Toronto, November 17, 1986.
Published in Canadian Speeches: Volume 01, #01, March, 1987.

More Information:

The Canadian Encyclopedia, Shirley Carr
Congress of Union Retirees of Canada, Shirley Carr


Canadian Union of Public Employees

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