Labour Keeps Its Distance From Guaranteed Annual Income, For Now…
By Brad James
A radical and simple concept: an effective way to stop people from being poor is to give them enough money not to be poor. In a society as rich as ours, can’t we provide everyone with enough income to ensure their dignity and autonomy?
Discussion about a guaranteed annual income (GAI) is suddenly back in vogue.
The idea of providing everyone with a guaranteed income paid from public revenue has grabbed attention in Canada at least twice before. The GAI made an appearance as a proposal (in a very tightfisted form) in the 1985 report from the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada (better known as the Macdonald Commission). More positively, the encouraging results on health and education outcomes of a more expansive GAI pilot program in Dauphin Manitoba in the mid-1970s caused a lot of stir when they were finally made public in 2009.
And now the GAI is back, sparked by at least partially by alarm about swelling income and wealth inequality. Both proponents and skeptics are getting lots of play.
But one voice has been relatively quiet. The labour movement, usually upfront and vocal on key social issues, has kept a noticeable distance from the present GAI discussion.
The Ontario Federation of Labour, the province’s largest labour group, has no formal position on the GAI, though it is now working on a GAI discussion paper. The Canadian Labour Congress last addressed this issue back in 1988 with a call for an expansive and comprehensive GAI model. Neither the United Steelworkers nor Unifor currently hold formal policy stances on the matter, and CUPE believes that the CLC’s position from 1988 remains relevant today.
Labour’s caution is worth noticing, especially in Ontario given the provincial government’s announcement that it will kick a GAI experiment into gear in fall of 2016. Liberal governments in Quebec and Ottawa have been making positive sounds as well.
Why might unions, not known for shyness, be holding back?
One reason is that settled opinion about the core idea behind the GAI does not stick to predictable ideological lines. Progressive opinion does not cohere in either direction. On the other side of the spectrum, conservatives can be appalled by the idea of simply giving people money, or be infatuated with a GAI’s imaginable efficiency in delivering support to those who need it.
Next, how a GAI might actually work is still a blank canvas.
It could be designed to be pinched and parsimonious, or to too deeply erode other vital social programs already in place. Alternatively, it could be layered into our existing social support landscape as a truly transformative initiative that could take a much-needed bite out of inequality and poverty.
So it may be prudent for labour to wait, to watch and to provide informed input as different models have their tires kicked.
It is also likely that labour’s diffidence is rooted in valid worries about a GAI subsidizing lousy employers or distracting governments from making needed progress on policy initiatives to increase the supply of meaningful and fairly compensated employment opportunities for people who can work.
Another speedbump is taxes. A robust and comprehensive GAI that also did not cannibalize other worthy programs would require a big jump in government revenue. And that would mean more taxes from a lot more of us. Despite some encouraging signs to the contrary, unions are not strangers to the popular notion that tax increases are things that somebody else (usually the unloved pairing called “the 1% and the big corporations”) should pay. Unions may simply not yet be ready to rally members around a GAI proposal to be paid by more contributions from those very same members.
As well, how would a GAI impact labour’s collective bargaining power?
On the positive side for labour, during strikes and lockouts, union members would have a credible income source in addition to their strike pay.
But a GAI’s subsidizing effect for employers might also move the bargaining power needle the other way.
And finally, coming out squarely in support of an expansive GAI also may mean wrapping minds around a difficult admission that perhaps the primacy of the traditional labour market as the key driver of income distribution may be less and less important in the future. And that could require a challenging, almost existential contemplation about the very nature of unions in the future.
The issues are complex and risky, but unions will not stay for long on the sidelines in the reignited GAI debate.
The opportunities for either exciting social progress or for backsliding and retrenchment are too great.
Brad James is the Organizing Department Leader for the United Steelworkers Canadian National Office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Opinions expressed are his own.