Recently the Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) made a daring proposal. In response to criticisms that unions were undemocratic, MFL Federation President Rob Hilliard challenged business leaders to join the federation in proposing to the provincial government’s hearings on labour-law reform that every two years all workers in Manitoba would vote on whether they wished union representation. Unionized workers would choose between keeping their union or decertification. If workers in non-union workplaces voted union there would be another stage to choose which union would represent them.
Not surprisingly the same corporate executives that had been pontificating about democracy fled from Hilliard’s proposal. However, the issue of democracy and choice will not disappear. On the Left the CAW is raising serious questions about the right of workers to change unions. On the Right the Ontario government is considering labour-law amendments that would give unionized workers the choice to opt out of membership, stop paying dues while continuing to receive all the benefits of union representation.
Advocates of the status quo are in a hard place. Our society places a high premium on the right of individuals to make choices. The merits of competition are often championed even by the Left when opposing corporate mergers. Corporations are expected to compete on the basis of customer service. Until now union membership is one of the few things deemed to be a lifelong commitment, unchangeable unless the top leadership, or some impartial umpire, provides permission. That may likely change, and many unions will also have to change to keep the allegiance of their members.
Ask many leaders and activists why they don’t think it is a good for workers to be periodically given the chance to change their union and they will tell you that the problem is that unions would redirect their energies from organizing new members to “poaching” members from other unions or in defending themselves against external raids. Unfortunately there is a lot to this argument. It is often said that “the truth is the first casualty in a union raid” with all sorts of wild claims and promises being made to fan the flames of discontent among members who have little opportunity to evaluate these statements.
But ask union members if they would like to select the union they already belong to and very many will say yes.
Unions should consider the criteria members would use if given the chance to choose.
My hunch is if unions had to compete for membership support they would put more emphasis on four areas of their operations, these being communications, education, negotiations and sectoral strategies.
There is no doubt if unions were periodically subjected to competition they would communicate more with the members. We would see more newsletters, more union newspapers, and more efforts to inform the membership about developments and the job the union is doing in representing them.
Education would also receive more resources. Currently most unions only involve a small proportion of membership in their education programs. Very few unions offer comprehensive programs examining the political economy of their sector. Some unions do not even offer sufficient basic tools courses required for shop stewards and local officers. If workers could choose between unions the quality and accessibility of education programs would be an important consideration for activists.
Collective bargaining would receive more scrutiny. Currently many unions seem to be content to lag behind the industry leaders, collect the dues, and sign easily negotiated contracts. In many unions little effort is paid to ensure negotiated agreements comply with the union’s policies or with priorities adopted at bargaining conferences. Some unions don’t even have bargaining conferences or establish overall bargaining objectives or strategies. This would change if unions had to compete for the loyalty of their members. Unions would want to be seen as trend setters. Unions might also devote more energies negotiating provisions such as paid time off for union stewards and paid education leave to finance improved membership services without raising dues.
Finally, if workers could choose unions, we would see more emphasis on developing analysis and strategies on a sectoral basis. Workers perceive of themselves in terms of the sector where they work. Yet many unions are structured on a geographic basis instead of along sectoral lines. This too would likely change as members would evaluate unions at least partially on their knowledge of their sector, its technology, work process, investment patterns and other economic and political considerations.
Personally I hope we do not see a situation where unions have to compete for members. I hope the unions will agree on rules providing an orderly process for changing unions when it would strengthen the collective bargaining situation of workers in the sector. Maybe that is dreaming in Technicolor.
Meanwhile, it is useful for everyone to remember the best defense from raiding is membership support, pure and simple.
Reprinted with permission from the author and Canadian Dimension (September/October 2000).