HALIFAX - Unions have to do a better job of connecting with the public as governments attempt to roll back hard-fought labour rights, says the head of Canada's largest labour organization.
Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff said more has to be done to talk about the value of unions and their role in society.
In a recent interview, Yussuff said union advances that have benefited people beyond the labour movement, such as workplace health and safety, pensions and employment standards have gone largely unappreciated.
Many people often assume the improvements have come about as a result of the generosity of governments and they haven't seen unions as being at the forefront in advocating for change, he argued.
"All of these things come about because of the advocacy of the labour movement in this country," said Yussuff. "We have got to do a better job in telling the story."
He said that's the idea behind a fairness campaign started by the congress, which he hopes also catches the attention of governments, as many pursue austerity programs that often target public sector unions.
Yussuff also points to Supreme Court of Canada rulings as bolstering labour's case to the public. The top court has "rebalanced the scale" in a series of decisions that have affirmed collective bargaining rights, the right to strike, and the right to freedom of association, he said.
But Larry Haiven, a professor of management at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, said part of labour's problem is that governments have calculated there isn't much downside to attacking unions, particularly in the public sector.
Haiven said for many workers the enemy has become "someone with a pension" and that's something governments have exploited as they seek to rein in costs.
And while Haiven agrees that courts have generally upheld the constitutional rights of unions, he said those decisions have typically taken five years or more to wind their way through the system.
He said while some court challenges have helped unions, they also give governments breathing room.
That's partly why the Nova Scotia government pushed ahead with essential services legislation that ended a nurses strike in Halifax in April 2014, he said, despite a Supreme Court challenge over a similar law in Saskatchewan.
The court struck down the Saskatchewan law in January as being unconstitutional.
"For the government, if the options come down to angry workers in the streets and eloquent lawyers in the courts, the choice is a no-brainer," said Haiven.
He said governments can usually delay in changing legislation following a court order to the point where it's the better part of a decade before something is done.
Nonetheless, when it comes to the public relations battle, Yussuff believes it's up to organized labour to capitalize on its court victories with the public.
"These are rights on behalf of all Canadians," he said. "Canadians have to see them in their totality, not see them as a special interest group gaining something."