Organized labour needs to learn to adapt to the present day

Since when did “union” become some sort of four-letter word?

It’s hard to pin down when exactly it did, but it sure is like this now—for almost everyone you talk to. They have clearly lost their way—serving a legitimate 21st century function, in a 20th century manner.

A union that is to be effective for its members must be strong, but pragmatic. A balanced labour agreement is understood to be a win for both management and a union because it ensures that workers are getting a fair share, but also that management can actually function so that those very workers still have a job. A union leader may look like a hero for getting a lot from management in a labour deal, but in taking such action, one would be sacrificing the long-term prosperity of the business for the short-term interests of the union leader. Unfortunately, workers often do not see that far ahead and legitimize these actions.

Since when is it about winning or losing and stoking the egos of union leaders?
Unfortunately, that is what it has become.

When the current recession took hold in 2008, union leaders, especially in the automotive sector, took the economic downturn as an opportunity to assert their dominance rather than actually work to find solutions that ultimately would be in the best interests of their members. Many will recall the infamous remark by current Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) President Ken Lowenza in March of 2009 claiming that the CAW would be “willing to make sacrifices” only to not budge on the biggest Achilles heel of the automotive sector: costly benefits. It is important to have these sorts of benefits; however, to claim that you are willing to sacrifice, but not enter into the negotiations with the intention of sacrifice seems to be a tell-tale sign of unions getting off-track, not to mention bargaining without good faith. Simply relying on the government bail-outs of the sector does not fix the structural problems that existed and still exist.

Let’s get back to basics. A union’s existence is to stand up for the interests of the membership. As mentioned before, this does not mean taking all you can get from management to the point that you are paying people to work the cash at a cafeteria over $20 per hour—it means finding that medium that gives your members a fair share but also ensures job security.

Nowadays, these fundamentals go even farther.

Much like business and the expectation of being a “good corporate citizen,” unions need to finally get beyond their own narrow interests and consider the larger context for a moment. This has not been the case and subsequently union membership has been declining for the last few decades.

This does not mean that unions must abandon their members. The union’s ultimate role is to stand up for the interests of their members — however, the interests of their members are best served by unions who actually understand the increasingly complex realities of the 21st century. Globalized trade, off-shore labour and a decline in manufacturing are all realities we have to grapple. Instead of simply squawking that these factors (and many others) are just the faults of the business, it is incumbent upon unions to step up to 21st century realities and help their members adjust.

Perhaps that means that unions are more actively involved in roles other than advocacy—the Teacher’s Pension Fund (although not a union) is a great example of a group that is benefiting their members by an investment in Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. The on-ice performance is sub-par, but the financial statements are spectacular year after year.

Most unions do have investments, but rarely are they using these investments to provide more service to their members or lower fees. Rather, the focus is on more bureaucracy and fat pay cheques for union executives. This was not the intention when unions were created.

Standing up for your members is great, especially because advocacy is the prime jurisdiction of any union. Yet, in order to do this in the 21st century, unions have to start realizing that they do not only have responsibilities to their members, but also to wider society. And that means accepting that recessions are not times to put your earmuffs on and stake your ground, instead it’s a time to get to the table and make things work.

I can only hope that public sector unions begin to heed this advice.

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