Monopolies are bad. Everyone knows that when a company enjoys monopoly or near monopoly status service and price go out the window. The threat of healthy competition keeps companies in line and protects consumers.
Governments also know this. That’s why we have anti-trust laws and government agencies to investigate instances of monopoly practices. The U.S. justice department’s investigation of Microsoft, which enjoys near monopoly status in personal computer operating system software, is a recent high-profile example.
That companies seek to dominate the market with a monopoly on a particular product or service is nothing new. Throughout history people have sought to further their own objectives through the use of monopoly power. Monopolies have been gained by means of business practices, historical factors, even government regulation, or a combination of the above. Once established, businesses guard their monopoly jealously and go to extreme lengths to justify their position.
Unions are no different. Most people probably don’t think of unions when they hear the word monopoly. Yet some unions clearly enjoy monopoly status, such as the teachers unions in Ontario, which have been all over the news recently because of their rotating strikes. While monopoly status arguably benefits teachers as a group, it comes at a high cost to the rights of individual members and other groups, such as parents, students, and the general public.
Unions, too, jealously guard their monopoly status and go to extremes to justify their position. One of the most explicit examples of monopoly unionism rhetoric can be found in the 1997 submission by the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council (BCYT) to the Construction Industry Review Panel, which had been mandated to review labour relations in B.C.’s construction industry. This submission is a bold-faced attempt to restore the BCYT’s monopoly through government legislation. In doing so, it lays bare the mindset that undergirds the justification of monopoly unionism.
The BCYT is a major player in the B.C. construction industry representing 14 of 15 craft unions in the province. During the past two decades, these unions have suffered a serious decline in membership and seen their monopoly slip away. A government-appointed Construction Industry Review Panel found that the reason workers were staying away in droves was the unions’ failure “to become more responsive to the present day realities.” A nice way of saying that their hard-nosed approach—marked by frequent strikes and a militant, antagonistic mindset to all who don’t tow the union line—is no longer effective.
The BCYT doesn’t see it that way. Their submission is a litany of complaints and blame fixing. B.C.’s construction industry has become chaotic and unbalanced because of greedy employers, unqualified tradespeople, independent unions, and, most of all, because the BCYT no longer controls the industry. This loss of control, according to the BCYT, has meant that the “unique characteristics” of the construction industry—healthy competition, a skilled workforce, proper apprenticeship and advanced training, and the employment of women and minorities—are no longer respected.
With the loss of control by the BCYT unions has come a decline in standards and workmanship, according to the submission. Historically, these craft unions developed their “market control” by insisting on carefully delineated trades. The capstone on this system was the “hiring hall,” which made both workers as well as employers dependent on the unions because they effectively controlled entry into the pool of skilled tradespeople as well as their employment. This is how they became the “guardians” of their members’ skills.
According to the BCYT submission, this finely-tuned and well-functioning arrangement fell apart during the 1980s as a result of the entry into the construction industry by unscrupulous employers aided and abetted by compliant unions. Nothing the building trade unions attempted, such as job targeting, organizing employees of nonunion contractors, and the previously effective nonaffiliation clauses did any good. The loss of market share by the building trade unions continued.
The main reason for this continuing decline, as diagnosed by the BCYT, is the presence of independent unions, described as “unions of convenience.” The BCYT fails to make any distinction between legitimate alternatives, such as the Christian Labour Association of Canada, and opportunistic independents whose concern for trade unionism is suspect. But the BCYT is convinced that these unions were able to get a foothold on the industry only by exploiting poorly trained and poorly paid workers.
The solution offered by the BCYT is to restore the previously unchallenged monopoly position of the building trade unions by requiring that all collective bargaining in the construction industry be craft-based and reinforced by the closed shop. As the submission puts it: “Because the only security construction workers have been able to develop in B.C. are tied to hiring halls for the specific trades, those hiring halls and the unions which manage and control them must be at the centre of the bargaining structure.”
To overcome the past weaknesses of fragmentation in the various crafts, the BCYT proposes that new bargaining power be given to a single council of all unions in the construction sector. This would include what they call the “unions of convenience,” since, according to the BCYT, these unions are not engaged in any real bargaining at all. They explain:
If the unions of convenience are to be allowed to continue to play a role in the industry, the bargaining of those agreements must also be brought into the larger bargaining process as well. As part of a larger base of bargaining power, these organizations will be in a position to obtain genuine competitive agreements—they will have some real bargaining power. As part of a larger democratic union bargaining structure they would not be permitted to sign agreements which only benefitted the employers regardless of the inclinations or personal interests of their leaders.
The recommendation to centralize all bargaining power in these unions is further rationalized as follows: “Sustainable labour relations cannot survive when a significant minority of the workforce is trapped behind inferior agreements with no real access to bargaining power.” The submission goes on to say that their proposed “rationalized system” of province-wide bargaining would eliminate the possibility that one group of employers or group of unions would be played off against other groups. This “rebalancing” of labour relations in construction, according to the BCYT, would ensure that workers in the industry are properly qualified, apprenticeship training is done effectively, and minority groups would have access to jobs.
The unions’ ambition to control the industry is not restrained by any concept of freedom of association or of the ordinary rights of citizenship. This is most clearly evident in the demand that the unions even control employment of their members outside of the range of their collective agreements. They write that the unions traditionally have “allowed” their members to work where the unions have no interest, such as in homeowner renovation work or some small commercial jobs. The collectivist mindset of the BCYT is all too evident in the following statement:
Unions should be free to continue these permissive policies, but they must have the legal ability to restrict outside contractors from accessing their union labour pool because ultimately the right to restrict access to the labour pool is essential to their fundamental bargaining power. Philosophically it is repugnant to the concept of collective solidarity, on which unions are based, to allow a worker to benefit from his access to a union labour pool while actively working in a way that undermines that union labour pool’s market share.
There is much more of this kind of rhetoric aimed at ensuring that freedom of choice in the B.C. construction industry is effectively smothered.
The authors of this document are obviously obsessed with their own righteousness, while depicting others as morally inferior and therefore in need of correction and discipline by the BCYT unions. While posing as the true defenders of workers, they treat them as their chattels who need to be controlled for their own good. The unions would have been more honest if they had boldly stated: “We know how to run this industry, and we want the power to do as we think best.” Instead, they attempt to cloak their true ambition in the language of caring for the well-being of workers who cannot be trusted to make their own decisions.
The BCYT’s views on “diversity” hiring are especially ironic. On the one hand, these unions want to eliminate workers’ freedom, and claim for themselves the power to bar workers from jobs. They want the ability to discriminate against workers and do not want any “diversity” in the way labour relations are conducted. On the other hand, they recommend affirmative hiring policies that would compel employers to hire certain numbers ofwomen and minorities.
Why would these unions not care one whit about real diversity among unions, while at the same time presenting themselves as defenders of minorities and diversity? They want nothing to do with real diversity among themselves, but at the same time they do not hesitate to impose diversity on others.
In both instances, the unions rely on state intervention to exclude as well as to include certain categories of people. The common thread in both positions is the furthering of their own power base by state intervention. In fact, the compulsory hiring policies recommended by the unions predictably will be used to exclude employers who fail to comply with the employment equity regulations. The BCYT writes: “There must be real financial consequences to discrimination and non-compliance. That will require consultation to ensure that compliance is possible and measurable. Loss of access to government work would be an effective deterrent to non-compliance.”
The BCYT submission concludes with the “overriding concern” that the B.C. construction industry is in serious trouble, and that their recommendations represent the last chance to put it back on a healthy basis before the “distortions” plaguing the industry inflict great hann on the economy and the welfare of all British Columbians.
The initial legislation introduced by the B.C. government in 1997 reflected much of what the BCYT was asking for. Fortunately, widespread public opposition to this bold power grab made the government reconsider. The new legislation that was introduced earlier this year still allows workers some choice in union representation. But a note of caution. Totalitarian trade unionism is still alive and well in Canada. No doubt we haven’t heard the last of it.