from Vol. 33 | Issue 1 | 2014


Time to End Two-Tier Wage Contracts

By Christo Aivalis


"We are thankful for these and all the good things of life. We recognize that they are a part of our common heritage and come to us through the efforts of our brothers and sisters the world over. What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all. To this end, may we take our share in the world's work and the world's struggles."
J.S. Woodsworth, founder of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation

Many issues weigh heavily upon the minds of young workers like me, including the high cost of post-secondary education. It blocks some of us from access to university, and it presents those like me, who manage to get in, with high debts and crushing interest payments. Faced with systemic underemployment, we often have to delay major life milestones, such as finding our own place to live or starting a family. Considering these challenges to young people, perhaps no other major issue looms over us more ominously (besides climate change) than that of the
growing acceptance of paying young people less for doing the same work as older workers, through two-tier wage provisions in collective agreements.

Two-tier provisions in unionized workplaces are all about inequality. One example is where older workers with more seniority, who already have job security, continue to receive their regular rate of pay, while most young workers, as well as new Canadians, those displaced from other jobs, and the already economically marginalized, receive a lower rate of pay for doing the same work. Another example might be a collective agreement that retains a pension plan for current employees, but which denies future hires retirement security.

Many negative consequences result from the provision of two-tier wages in collective agreements, for society as a whole, and for the labour movement. First, two-tier wages feed into the rise of an underclass of young workers, and pressure parents to help their adult children with rent and loan payments. In the longer term, the millions of young people working low- or no- paying jobs won't be able to buoy consumer spending or purchase homes, which are, for many, the key source of retirement income. A generation will be left without the means to support itself, and, by extension, to support society.

For our labour movement, the consequences could be no less dire. The movement is facing a demographic time bomb, with many of its members, activists, and staff set to retire in the next few years. Without new blood to replace them, the movement will be all the weaker, and institutional memory loss will be endemic. Who will be left to remember labour's history and be proud and caring trade unionists in the future?

Any acceptance of two-tier contracts weakens the movement. Young workers will consider themselves treated as second-class citizens and members, and see unions as increasingly irrelevant to their lives. Further, the mainstream caricature of unions and their members as "self-interested" will take a stronger hold among young workers labouring in unionized environments while not enjoying the full benefits of union membership. Finally, two-tiered contracts within one's union isn't conducive to solidarity and unity. If organized labour wants to ensure participation from the next generation of workers, they not only need to create space for us within their organizational structures, but also to ensure that agreements reflect fairness for young workers.

The labour movement has prided itself on its historic demand that all work be dignified. The idea that young people should be paid less simply because of our age is an affront to this goal. Much like how our union sisters have struggled (and are still struggling) for pay equity, young workers are also struggling, being asked to do equal work, but without equal pay. In short, two-tier provisions violate human rights and the principle of equality, within a movement that was built on those very principles. Any union that accepts two-tier provisions is practising a vile form of hypocrisy, ignoring J. S. Woodsworth's call: "What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all."

The presence of two-tier provisions in our society has a profound cultural effect, as well. It tells a generation of Canadians that we must work as hard as ever, but accept much less. It tells my generation there is no alternative to austerity and declining standards of living. It shows us that our elders are content to pull the ladder up after they have climbed on board the ship of prosperity, now sailing away. In short, my generation is being conditioned to harbour, not hope for a better world, but, instead, the spectre of a planet in trouble, and a world worse off than
when our parents were young. Paradoxically, young workers are being faced with this in a time of astonishing wealth and productivity.

The labour and socialist movements have achieved great things and, always present throughout their history, there was an optimism for the future: that, through solidarity and sacrifice, a better world was possible and would come, for themselves and for subsequent generations. Nowadays, however, our society seems more willing to quash young people's natural optimism, telling us we are lazy, "entitled," unrealistic, selfish, and short-sighted. In reality, we have the same broad goals and aspirations as did prior generations. When young people cannot dream of a better world, and are chastised for doing so, the seeds of stagnation and despair are sure to be sown.

I believe we must re-imbue the labour movement, and the NDP, with militancy and proactivity. For too many years the movement has been on the defensive, trying to protect long-held gains, but not pushing for newer and better contracts. When today's leaders choose to only play defence, concessions are an inevitability, and the people who will disproportionally bear those concessions are young workers. We must refuse to allow two-tier provisions in our society; federal and provincial labour laws must be changed to outlaw any work provision that offers unequal pay for equal work; and unions must commit to refusing any two-tier implementations during bargaining.

We also need to hear more from young workers in our unions, our legislatures, and our media. Too often, the issues of young Canadians are articulated (rather poorly) by those who grew up in a different social and economic milieu. To challenge the negative stereotypes my generation is labelled with, we need to have a voice and seat at the table. Equality, solidarity, and progress depend on it.

Christo Aivalis is a doctoral candidate at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, researching the political, economic, labour, and religious history of the Canadian left. He is also a member of the NDP, and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Local 901. He is the PSAC Ontario Young Worker Representative, and sits on the Ontario Federation of Labour's Workers Under 30 Committee. He was a delegate to the 2014 Canadian Labour Congress convention, where he and other young workers took a stand against a two-tier economy.

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