The three-day conference, "Labour Rights and Their Impact on Democracy, Economic Equality and Social Justice," is organized by the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights (CFLR) and sponsored by the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW Canada) and the Canadian Teachers' Federation (CTF).
The conference got underway on Tuesday night with an engaging keynote speech by acclaimed U.K. author and social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson. He is Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at University of Nottingham, Honorary Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London and Visiting Professor at University of York. He is the co-author of the award-winning book, The Spirit Level.
Wilkinson presented research which shows that income inequality is a serious and growing problem in Canada and around the world. As societies become more unequal, there are a range of economic, social, health and political problems that get a lot worse, according to the statistical evidence presented by Wilkinson.
The effects of large income inequality show up in poorer economic performance, more social divisions, increased environmental damage, weaker democracy, lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, more cases of mental illness and addiction and lower math and literacy scores.
Wilkinson’s research also shows that the negative consequences of income inequality are not confined to the poor but extend to all social classes.
“Income inequality is a general social pollutant that affects everyone in the society,” said Wilkinson. “On the flip-side, everyone in society benefits from greater equality.”
Wilkinson highlighted a number of causes and solutions for income inequality, including improving social programs and making taxation progressive again. He emphasized that stronger trade unions are an essential remedy for the problem of growing income inequality.
“Strong labour laws and higher unionization rates reduce income inequality by raising wages for all workers and ensuring more workers receive a higher proportion of national income,” said Wilkinson. “Countries with higher union density are more equal and social, economic and environmental sustainability depends on greater equality.
“Strong unions are also important because they provide a voice in the media, they represent the 99%, and raise issues like income inequality,” added Wilkinson.
Other speakers at the conference will include Canadian and international human rights advocates, labour leaders, progressive labour relations academics, and labour lawyers recognized for their work on issues related to the conference.
“Income inequality is the canary in the coal mine,” said James Clancy, NUPGE National President and CFLR board member. “The evidence presented by Richard Wilkinson shows that the income inequality gap is the most powerful indicator of how well an economy, society and democracy will perform. The link between unionization rates and income inequality is clear. We encourage the federal and provincial governments to strengthen labour rights as an important way to reduce income inequality.”