People are rarely at a loss for words when I tell them that I’m employed by a trade union. When it comes to the subject of labour, everyone seems to have a strong opinion, and few are indifferent.
Although these positions are sometimes rational, reasonable, and carefully thought out, that’s not always the case. In fact, the very subject of unionism seems to elicit views that are extreme and inflexible.
Consider two typical examples, one from each end of the opinion spectrum. Joe Union was born into the union brotherhood. His father and grandfather were in the union—it’s in his genes, and also in his jeans, in the form of a well-worn union membership card. Joe is well aware of the key role that unions have played in building Canada’s social safety net. He believes that union labour means safer workplaces, turning out better quality products.
Joe’s view of management is far from positive. A good strike now and then keeps the greedy boss in line. His spare time is spent in the lounge at the union hall, unless the union has put out a call for protesters or picketers. He wears his union coat and hat with pride—everywhere. He votes the way the union tells him to, for the union is never wrong. He knows exactly what to think about free trade, globalization, the war in Iraq, and gay marriage. Those trying to reform unions, in Joe’s opinion, are a danger and a threat to the all-important notion of solidarity. The natural career path for Joe leads directly to the union office.
At the other end of the spectrum sits Stan Solo. “Sits” is perhaps the wrong word, for Stan is not the kind of guy to loaf around. He is highly motivated and very self-confident. In Stan’s not-too-humble opinion, unions are dinosaurs, outdated organizations which protect lazy workers, restrict management, and hamper production.
In a rare moment of weakness, Stan might concede that unions once had a purpose, but he maintains that such an era has long passed. He doesn’t need a union because he is quite capable of looking out for himself. His hard work and varied skill set will give him job security and ever-increasing financial reward. A union would only group him with co-workers whom he sees as less skilled or even inferior.
Stan has a list of people—his brother-in-law, his cousin’s girlfriend, even his plumber—who were mistreated by unions. And he has a file folder full of newspaper clippings detailing union graft and corruption.
Stan has made his opinion of unions known to all his co-workers; if a union ever succeeds in organizing his workplace, he has no choice but to fall on his vocational sword and quit. But even such an employment interruption would do little to interfere with his career destination: senior management.
I’ve met Joe many times, in many different places, and I’ve run into Stan no less often. There’s no point in arguing with them; their views on unionism are held as deeply as any religious belief, and in fact their religious views may have been modified to include or support their labour doctrines.
Each of the viewpoints described above is unbalanced, though common. Each also contains an element of truth. On the one hand, many of the criticisms that have been levelled at today’s trade unions—for being confrontational, for corruption, for resisting change—are tired but true. On the other, it’s hard to deny that the pro-labour side has the support of millions of loyal union members, who have their reasons.
The difficulty that I have with both camps is that they have lost sight of the basic definition and function of the labour union. Their opinions of organized labour are based on what trade unions do (or fail to do), with little consideration for what trade unions are (or should be).
When one looks at the way unions function today, it’s little wonder that extreme views result. If opinions of corporations were to be based on the tales of Enron or Tyco, the outcome would be similar. If opinions of government were to be based on the Liberal sponsorship scandal or on U.S. congressional hearings, what else could be expected?
It’s worthwhile, then, to peel back the layers of what unions do. Look past the well-paid union bosses, the political and social activism, the endless confrontations, and the disgruntled members. At its core, the union is a very simple institution: employees in a workplace banding together to regulate their employment relations with the company.
This notion of collective action seems out of place in this individualistic, looking-out-for-number-one world. And, yet, this is the heart of unionism, and this is the reason why unions are valid, valuable, and necessary institutions in today’s society.
I offer two broad arguments in defence of this core unionism: the recognition of community and the creation of structure.
The basic concept of unionism correctly recognizes the communal nature of the workplace. A workplace is not a collection of individuals who operate in isolation from or in competition with each other. It’s not every man (or woman) for himself. The workplace is not a family unit (I shudder when I hear an employer suggest this, because often it reveals his view of the owner as parent and the workers as children), but it is a mini-society.
In almost any workplace, the interconnectivity of the various jobs requires mutual support and communication. The workplace’s communal nature shows itself in many different ways, from shared lunch breaks to summer barbeques to passing the hat for a sick or bereaved colleague. And so it is odd and unnatural for the workplace community to suddenly become a collection of individuals when it comes to dealing with matters such as wages, benefits, safety, communication, scheduling, vacation, even discipline and termination.
Many employers—even in non-union settings—recognize this fact and make efforts to deal with employment relations on a collective basis. When done well, this results in a relationship where the employees are dealt with as a group and treated as a partner in the enterprise. When done poorly, this approach results in the employer imposing standard and inflexible terms on the entire workforce.
These employers—and the multitude of consultants who assist them—have also recognized the need for the creation of workplace structure. Why is such structure necessary? To put it simply, human nature is such that people do not always act in a way that they should. In society at large, this fact is widely recognized and addressed with a wide range of institutions and structures, from police to children’s aid societies to counsellors to courts.
Many Canadians assume that this modern (and perhaps over-regulated) country must have ample laws and regulations protecting workers, establishing structures to ensure that justice is as much a priority in the workplace as it is in the rest of society. The reality, however, is quite different.
In most jurisdictions, the premise is this: government will establish the minimum workplace structures and requirements. Workers desiring more than the minimum should be free—or even encouraged—to form or join a trade union. The Canada Labour Code speaks grandly of the “long tradition in Canada of labour legislation and policy designed for the promotion of the common well-being through the encouragement of free collective bargaining” (see http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/L-2/ ).
The labour union assists in creating a variety of workplace structures, both through and outside of a collective agreement. These include a prompt and binding dispute-resolution mechanism; informal and formal communication procedures; evaluation, discipline, and appeal processes; and, of course, mechanisms and criteria for determining compensation matters. While these structures are far from perfect—and sometimes abused—they do help to protect the workplace against the more negative aspects of human nature.
There are plenty of employers who recognize both the communal nature of the workforce and the need for workplace structure. They group their employees together for the purpose of collective “bargaining” and put in place structures that appear quite similar to those in unionized environments. But, despite their own use of hired experts, such as consultants, lawyers, and accountants, they become very concerned or openly opposed when the group of employees itself obtains professional representation. And yet, I suggest, the employees as a whole are a partner, with the employer, in the enterprise. For that partnership to function fully and properly, each partner should be able to avail itself of the best advice and expertise.
A long parade of writers, analysts, and experts has showered the struggling labour movement with advice. If there’s a theme to their wisdom, it’s that unions must change, change, change. Abandon the old ways, and find news ones.
I think they’ve got it backward. The concept and practice of unionism is at its best when unions go back to their core functions. Help to build and protect work communities. Work to build structures that ensure workplace justice, enhance workplace communication, and remove workplace friction. Recognize the communal nature of the workplace and the human nature of those who work and manage there, and act accordingly.
More than a few Friday-night-philosophers have asked, “Will there be unions in heaven?” I know what Joe Union would say: “No need; there will be no employers there.” And Stan Solo might say: “There won’t be—they won’t be able to get any staff.”
I’m not sure what the answer is. I do know this: that here and now, when sticking to their core functions, unions are a good thing indeed.