Unions need to rethink strategy

First published: July 02, 2005

Unions are in big trouble.

This is not about bashing unionized workers; nor is it adulation for capitalists. Unions play a vital role in the modern economy, despite the best rhetoric put forward by neo-conservative think tanks. Yet, here in Northumberland, we are watching several incidents play out, giving us a microcosm of these larger issues.
Only two weeks ago, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union announced there appeared to be no end in sight for the workers at Cam Tran in Colborne. Both sides are waiting for a mediator to arrive in mid-July before restarting talks.

It cannot be easy for any of the 42 employees. While the 29 non-union employees continue to work, the remaining staff is outside picketing, trying to capture public support and slow down the operation in an effort to force the company back to the negotiating table.

The central issue is money, mainly a performance bonus. The average unionized salary is about $13 an hour, but employees get an incentive for exceeding production goals. The contract ended in February; yet, the strike began on May 16.

It is deeply troubling to watch this drama unfold. It is difficult on all sides, as the company tries to maintain its business and the workers fight to gain fair compensation. Regardless of one’s personal stand, one thing is perfectly clear: people suffer when unions go on strike.

From a worker’s perspective, nothing can be more unsettling. It disrupts the regular flow of money into a household. And while there is strike pay, it is rarely enough to replace lost income. It causes stress in family relationships and between fellow workers, friends and family. It is never easy and rarely is there a Hollywood ending with a mighty victory for workers. Those are myths and the truth is far more complicated. During a long strike, even when unions receive a majority of their demands, lost wages are rarely made up and the relationship between workers and employers inevitably sours.

And with labour laws in Ontario and Canada at their weakest in a century, a strike rarely achieves its goal. It is certainly not like the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, a Golden Age in unionism. Unions were growing rapidly in membership and influence. Strikes brought employers to their knees. Victories were sweet with large wage increases and major concessions. The public watched in awe.

That is not the case any longer. The public can barely muster any empathy for striking workers and unionism is a heated topic of debate among many people. The dissolving support of citizens (and in some cases union members) could easily be attributed to the increase in the number of white-collar jobs, and the massive reduction in blue-collar, manufacturing jobs. Also 25 years anti-union governments starting with former NDP Premier Bob Rae in Ontario, Tory Premier Mike Harris, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and current Prime Minister Paul Martin, among a long list of others who have pass back to work legislation or ripped away at union rights.

Despite what many assume, unions enjoy solid support. In fact, union membership has remained constant since 1990 at about four million of Canada’s 13.4 million workers, just slightly more than a third. And it is growing. Between May 2004 and May 2005, union membership rose 2.5 per cent. This is a stark contrast to the United States, where unionized workers represent about 13 per cent of the total work force, half of what it used to be back in 1983.

These numbers may be encouraging to unionists, but it still means a majority of workers in Canada are not unionized. And, more significantly, there is a strong anti-union bias in the public.

Take the recent work to rule campaign by elementary school teachers a few weeks ago. Parents and the public were livid over the job action, which reduced non-teaching activities while the board and union tried to reach a deal. Only after threats of provincial funding costs got the negotiations settled. And while the union wants the public to believe children don’t suffer, inevitably they do.

Unions stuck in the traditional approaches to resolving labour disputes: picket lines and job actions as the two edges of negotiator’s sword.

It is great to see solidarity among unions, but there is a blatant disregard for the public at large. Sam Gindin and Jim Stanford, in their essay Canadian Labour and the Political Economy of Transformation, argue the need for union to seek new alliances in order to reinvigorate itself and survive in the future.

Unions do a lot of good. They protect workers. They ensure workplace safety. They tackle social justice issues, which would never be advanced otherwise. But Canada does not have the deep-rooted class system found in Europe, which gives labour its foundation to draw on when seeking to bring public opinion against an employer.

Unfortunately, Canadian unionized workers cannot moblize the majority of the public during a labour dispute. Ask how many people honk in support when they drive by a picket line. Without this solidarity with citizens, unionize workers like the ones at Cam Tran or nurses or police officers, or paramedics or any one of a long list of hardworking, decent individuals get unfairly pigeonholed and treated unfairly. And, their employers get tarred or praised with the same inequity.

Unionists need to find a new tune for a modern audience because the current arrangement is not working.