Day of Mourning reminds community of union's role

First published: Sunday, May 04, 2008

As members of the Northumberland & District Labour Council gathered at the county building Monday to remember injured and dead workers as part of the National Day of Mourning, it is crucial to reflect.

In 2007, 100 people lost their lives on the job in Ontario and about 80,000 were hurt so badly they had to miss work, according to the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. It is hard to believe in a modern world anyone would lose his or her life at work. For more than a century, unions have fought to make workplace safety a reality. In fact, it is one of the central reasons unions were formed. And, while unions were successful in bringing about legislation to protect people at work, there is still much to be done.

Which brings us to a central question: What exactly do unions do in the 21st Century? This week is full of news around unions as the TTC strike is dissected, GM is losing jobs and Ford has signed a contract with no wage increases.

About 4.4 million workers belong to unions in Canada in 2007, representing about 30 per cent of the workforce (not including agriculture). That figure has remained the same over the past decade. Historically, unions were built on previous alliances of craftspeople, some existed before capitalism and the industrial revolution took hold. Traditionally, unions were forced to represent full-time men working in the manufacturing sector. And, it was a time when industrial workers were the face of the modern work force in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, representing the vast majority of people.

Yet, globalization, anti-unionism, mergers and consolidations, as well as the surrendering of earlier gains by many some unions have left the public and union members cynical. During the Golden Era of unions in the late 1960s and 1970s, where unions were able to negotiate settlements that advanced the rights of workers and gave them a fair share of profits, today a union is lucky to get an inflationary increase (and in the case of Ford, nothing). There is little unions can do to protect jobs, as some 900 GM workers found out earlier this week.

To understand what went wrong, one needs only look at the recent TTC strike to see many of the problems. Months of tough negotiations were lost when the membership voted against the deal last Friday. It embarrassed the union leadership, who obviously did not read the mood of the members properly, and it undermined the public’s trust on several levels, including a loss of service without 48 hours notice.

But, it also brought into focus the anti-unionism that so prevalent. News report showed angry citizens complaining about a nine per cent increase over three years (three per cent per year of the agreement). As one woman put it in an interview, “I would love to get a nine per cent increase.”

Yet, it was the provincial politicians from all parties passing back to work legislation in an emergency session on Sunday that was most telling. There was a time when governments supported unions because they knew it would cost them elections if they did not. Today, governments support business because they know it will cost them much more. So, the rights of workers get tossed aside. The province could conspire with Toronto council to declare the TTC an essential service, virtually stripping away all their rights as workers.

It is no wonder unionized workers are despised. Over the recent weeks in this newspaper, a debate over teacher’s salaries was an example of the distain, as one set of writers tried to tear away at the dignity of teachers, just as some have tried to strip TTC workers of their self-respect.

There is no doubt unions are tired, archaic, bureaucratic and sometimes irrelevant organizations who are out of touch. And, it is reasonable to question whose interests unions represent. Is it the leadership or the rank and file or someone else? Unions have floundered like a fish on a dock gasping to find water. It appears the rejection of the TTC deal was more about leadership than workers as reports of a schism between Bob Kinnear and other union executive members.

The modern reality demands a massive change within unions in order to respond to current anti-unionism, as well as protect workers – all workers – within the current economic climate. As corporate executives pocket obscene salaries and shareholder rights squash the rights of employees, unions have an opportunity to ignite a vital debate.

The perilous state of unionism in Canada must be laid at the feet of its leadership. These people are not listening to the rank and file, only showing up when it is advantageous to the union or when contract talks begin. And, while there are always a few activists, the unions cannot profess to hold the hearts and minds of their members.

This means unions must embrace a revitalized grassroots movement within the workforce. Successful unions are able to work with union members as individuals, not as a collective. Money may not always be the answer, but working conditions, life/work balance and recognition of individual achievement may be on the same level as wages, benefits and contracting out.
Richard Hyman, a labour specialist at the London School of Economics, said in a recent speech, unions must help workers find flexibility in the workplace to make the workplace a more satisfying experience where the workers set the path of their careers. It must also reach out to those who face exploitation, such as smaller companies where workers have few, if any rights. More than 94 per cent of companies in Canada actively oppose union certification, with a whopping 88 per cent deliberately take action to block union access to employees, which are guaranteed under law. Unions must find a way to embrace these workers, too.

But society’s attitude toward unions must also undergo a transformation. While we have become more selfish, self-centred and obsessed with individualism, we must also not forget the importance of collective action. As long as those in power – both political and economic – can divide us, we will be powerless to oppose them. It is only through collective action where we can best maintain our rights. It doesn’t matter whether it is workplace safety or fighting a shooting range or a frink in Cobourg harbour, collective action is the only way to get a meaningful response. Alone, we live in fear. Together, we can be fearless.