In the next decade, labour unions are going to have to change. Like companies, unions operate in a competitive environment. Not only do they compete with each other but also with the growing option of remaining nonunion. In the United States, trade unions have experienced a steady decline in numbers and influence. Here in Canada, union numbers have, by and large, held their own. There are, however, signs that this level of support is under pressure. To flourish, indeed to survive, unions will need to pay more careful attention to a number of studies that suggest there are large gaps between what they are doing and what Canadians are looking for in unions.
At a recent WRF symposium, industrial relations academics, trade unionists, and business leaders considered the current labour relations landscape and explored ways in which the trade union movement could better address the service demands for unions. From the starting proposition that the responsible representation of workers should continue to be a key element of the emerging economy, the discussion also considered how unions can make themselves more attractive and effective with a growing hard-to-organize sector of the economy.
Three studies in particular helped form a backdrop for discussions at the symposium. These studies examined various aspects of industrial relations, the priorities of Canadian union leaders, and what the public believes unions should be focusing on.
Viewpoints ’98 survey
The Canadian Labour Market and Productivity Centre, a joint labour-business initiative, recently published the findings of a survey of business, labour, and public sector leaders called Viewpoints ’98. In compiling over 500 responses to questions relating to the economy, demographics, alternative work arrangements, and the current state of labour/management relations in Canada, the survey discovered a number of differences in both the perception of what is being done and the priority of what should be done to address issues between the various groups. It was instructive that there were gaps in the perceptions of labour and management of what was occurring in labour relations, particularly within the respondents own organization.
Beliefs about unions
John Goddard, from the faculty of management at the University of Manitoba, summarized the findings of a survey which looked at five typical roles of unions and how Canadians viewed the effort given by unions in each of these areas, the relative success in the area, and the desired priority given to each. The five main roles discussed included:
- the Economic Role—maximising the wage and benefit package;
- the Workplace Democratization Role—speaking on behalf of workers in the workplace;
- the Integrative Role—the orderly resolution of inherent workplace conflicts;
- the Social Democratic Role—the promotion of social goals within society as a whole; and
- the Conflict Role—serving as a vehicle for the expression of “class” conflict (e.g., fighting the “corporate” agenda).
While Goddard found that Canadians are highly supportive of unions in general, they nonetheless believe that unions should be putting more effort into democratization and integrative efforts. Such efforts would include “ensuring workers have a say in union affairs, finding positive solutions to conflicts that arise, pursuing grievances, enabling workers to have a say in what happens to them at work, negotiating rights and protections, and representing workers to management.”
Goddard further found that “social democratic and conflict issues tend to receive the lowest mean scores. This would suggest that as a whole Canadians believe unions should be focusing more of their efforts into workplace issues rather than broader political social issues.”
Merely shifting priorities, however, may not necessarily result in greater union strength. Goddard points out that respondents who favour greater focus on workplace issues are traditionally not the strongest union supporters. Likewise, traditional core union support has often come from within the more militant component of the labour movement.
Perhaps this explains the gap in what the public believes unions should be doing and what the union leadership prioritizes. And it does, in part at least, help explain the gap between business leaders and union leaders perception of what rank and file employees actually think. Clearly, business leaders are more likely to believe that things are quite all right within their own firms. In the same way, we could ask how do the priorities that union leaders focus on effect their own perception of what actually happens on the shop floor?
Canadians and unions
WRF’s own Angus Reid survey of 1997, Canadians and Unions: A Survey of Current Attitudes, found agreement with much of what the Goddard and the Viewpoint study revealed. A majority of Canadians (although a shrinking percentage) approved of unions. The WRF-Angus Reid survey asked questions that related specifically to union security issues, restrictive union practises in the construction industry, and the use of dues for non-collective bargaining issues. The survey found that a strong majority of Canadians take a negative view of these practices. Furthermore, Canadians believe labour and management can work cooperatively.
Building positve relations
Can we reach any broad conclusions from this information? While these surveys should be placed in context (their findings at best reveal only general trends), they can still be helpful in confirming certain intuitive ideas and principled theories on what unions, as worker advocates, should be doing.
For years, WRF has been suggesting that the trade union movement would be strengthened if unions were to focus more on workplace issues, especially the fostering of positive, cooperative relations with management based on mutual trust and respect. These three surveys seem to confirm that this is what, in fact, Canadian workers desire. Unions that respond to this expectation will do well.,/p>
Governments and employers should, in turn, take note that the level of discontent within Canadian workplaces is greater than they believe. Furthermore, they should seriously consider amending labour laws to make it easier for workers to join unions, enabling more Canadians to deal collectively with their employer. John Goddard’s study determined that “63 percent agree either strongly or somewhat strongly that governments should make it as easy as possible for workers to join unions.”