Smithson: Advice to unions: Think smaller

John Allemang wrote an article in the Globe and Mail this past weekend in which he examined a widespread loss of faith in trade unions.

John Allemang wrote an article in the Globe and Mail this past weekend in which he examined a widespread loss of faith in trade unions.

Allemang wrote: “Even union leaders are losing faith in the power of their unions.”

B.C.’s Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, was quoted in the article as saying, “There used to be a time when we had great respect from the public, but we’ve lost that. There’s this notion that unions are just out for themselves and not for society.”

Mark Ferguson, a branch president of CUPE was quoted as admitting, “The public hates unions right now.”

Allemang described the present time as a “precarious moment for the labour movement.”

Citing labour battles such as those in B.C. involving teachers and nurses, he questioned whether the very survival of the collective bargaining power of trade unions is at stake.

The article describes private sector unions’ inability to halt a “steady slide towards oblivion” and their public sector counterparts’ risk of losing “the battle for taxpayers’ hearts and minds that sees them portrayed as out-of-touch elitists mocking hard-pressed taxpayers with their job security, regular hours and gold-plated pensions.”

As Allemang put it: “Instead of representing the gold standard that all workers aim for, unions became the symbol of uncompetitive greed and outmoded status.”

And so, it seems, unions are seeking to reinvent themselves.

Some are looking to get even bigger, presumably as a way of better flexing their labour muscle. For example, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union is negotiating with the Canadian Auto Workers to merge into a super-union “designed to reinvent the labour movement.”

I’ve often been heard to say that, in many ways, trade unions are no longer relevant.

In times gone by, unions provided much-needed representation to workers on issues such as workplace safety, employment standards (wages, hours of work, etc.), and human rights.

They stood up for workers at a time when workers really were powerless to represent their own interests. But, over a span of many decades, much of unions’ historical role was usurped by governments, provincial and federal.

All jurisdictions in Canada now have well-established workers compensation, employment standards, and human rights legislation. In each instance, there is also an administrative body entrusted with the task of ensuring employers’ compliance.

In B.C., for instance, the Workers Compensation Act, Employment Standards Act and Human Rights Code occupy this territory. Even the relationship between unions and employers is now thoroughly regulated by statute (in B.C.’s case by the Labour Relations Code).

While even the most ardent proponent of management’s point of view would have to acknowledge that union activism may have been the most important factor in those legislative developments, but in doing so, unions may well have paved the way to their own irrelevance.

So, what’s left for unions to do? Aside from advancing the occasional grievance, the trade union’s primary role today is to negotiate a collective agreement every three or four years.

Reduced to that role, trade unions are (seemingly) no longer seen in public except when demanding more money and benefits enhancements for their members.

That refrain gets tiring both for members of the general public and for union members, and the bigger the union the more jaded the public becomes about their motivations.

Maybe the answer is for trade unions to stop thinking about getting bigger and to refocus their attention on finding reasons to be relevant again—at the local level.

That means identifying the issues that are confronting working people today, now that the big battles over employment standards and human rights and workplace safety are largely over.

To do that, they’ll surely have to talk to their members and be responsive to their calls for help.

Forming a “super-union” probably isn’t going to achieve that result.

What people seem to want from their union is a voice, an opportunity to be heard.

The problem, right now, seems to be that unions are speaking a language their members and the general public no longer understand or appreciate.