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Are Unions Up to Their Future Task?

October 1, 1989 -

Everywhere the signs are clear: companies and unions are faced with immense and rapid changes, affecting their future well-being, if not survival. This article will focus mainly on the union side of the spectrum.

A look at the membership trends in the United States underscores the fact that unions are going through difficult times of transition. U.S. union representation has fallen from about 35% of the non-farm work force to 17% today. In Canada, the picture is much more rosy; about 36% of Canadian non-farm workers are unionized. Nonetheless, over the last few years there has been a gradual decline in the density of unionized workers in Canada. The future of unions on this side of the border is by no means secured, and the beginning slide in membership figures may be an ominous indication of things to come.

A whole complex of developments is confronting unions as well as management. These include the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, rapid internationalization of production, marketing, and fast-paced technological changes affecting every aspect of business. Then there is the need to educate and (re)train workers for the new jobs of the future—a crucial issue that is drowned out by the sound and fury surrounding all attempts to revamp unemployment insurance. Perhaps most important is the revolution in the prevailing attitudes and expectations of modern society. In any case, much will be demanded from management and union leadership in face of future pressures and opportunities. The question is whether they are equal to the task. One thing is certain: that task will require imagination, a bigness of vision and a willingness of labour and management to find new ways of tackling the problems of the workplace together.

Eric Roher has written a thought-provoking article about the upcoming challenges in the September issue of Policy Options. He predicts an increase in conflicts and polarization between labour and management as companies try to adjust to a new and more competitive environment. While Canadian unions have some built-in advantages over their American counterparts, including a more favourable legislative and political climate and a more extensive health care system, Canadian unions, too, will need to rethink their traditional approaches, says Roher. He contends that this especially applies to the structure and management of work processes and to the compensation systems now in place. He argues that much more employee-employer cooperation and interaction is required, as well as greater flexibility in wage payment methods. All of this will have immensely important repercussions for the economic and social well-being of Canadian workers and their families, and of the entire society.

We need not belabour or question the role of labour unions in principle. History has clearly shown that they are a very necessary institution for the protection and well-being of workers. However, it is debatable whether unions by and large have become just another self-centred pressure group, or whether they have a broader social vision. Times of change and turmoil such as we are facing will tell us a great deal about the real nature of mainline Canadian trade unions. At least six features of this kind of trade unionism do not inspire much confidence. Let me briefly review them here:

  1. Unions tend to function as self-serving pressure groups primarily concerned with the interest of their own members, often accompanied by a disregard for the interests of others, e.g., in certain strike situations.
  2. Many union leaders are steeped in the adversarial mentality that blocks any progress towards developing healthy relations in the workplace and overcoming the real problems of work. For example, in its constitution, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers rejects all forms of trade unionism "that fail to pose the basic division between the interest of workers and the interest of the employer." Consequently, it rejects all attempts to "establish a partnership between labour and government or between labour, government and employers."
  3. As a result, many unionists view labour and management relations as a power struggle between two opposing forces. This is seen in a simple us-versus-them context in which all workers must be recruited on the side of the working class over against the capitalists. Hence, they are quite prepared to dispense with freedom of association in the name of worker solidarity.
  4. Union leaders have repeatedly shown that they are insensitive to the honest religious convictions of those who cannot in good conscience adopt the principles and practices unions now often espouse. (See below.)
  5. The mainline unions are contributing to the politicization of society by their endorsement of an essentially statist view of society, that is, a propensity to view political power (in league with the New Democratic Party) as the chief means to build the good society. There is reason to believe that this kind of politicization leads to an increase in social and political tension and a further disregard of the rights and freedoms of those who happen to hold a different view of politics and labour relations.
  6. Perhaps most importantly, these same unions have become influential channels for the ongoing secularization of life, especially noticeable in the defence of abortion on demand.

In summary, the foregoing elements of mainline trade unionism have led its leaders to reject a cooperative and visionary view of labour-management relations. Though priding themselves on their progressive mindset, they are the real conservatives by stubbornly clinging to the rhetoric and methods of the past. They have in many cases rejected all efforts to bring about flexibility and increased worker responsibility, because they view them as management tactics to undermine the union and to exploit workers. This kind of distrustful attitude and dogged attachment to a very simplistic black-and-white understanding of labour-management relations is a bar to innovations aimed at making work itself more challenging and rewarding, and preventing economically wasteful practices.

A New Vision is Needed

In this context, Thomas Kohler's discussion of the role of unions in American society is relevant in Canada. (See Thomas C. Kohler, "In Praise of Unions," Crisis, October 1989, pp.35-38.) He finds it odd that unions, once the subject of intense controversy, are now one of the few subjects that liberals and conservatives agree on, namely, modem unions have precious little worth praising. He recalls that union policies are often detrimental to non-members and to the unemployed, and points out that the majoritarian principle used by trade unionists can mean that the rights of minorities are disregarded. Kohler views the numerical decline of trade unionism in the U.S. as a sign that many no longer regard unions as the avenue through which social justice is promoted. He nonetheless is convinced that the institution of trade unionism is still much needed today.

Kohler reminds us that unions are intended to be organizations which facilitate the democratic private law-making arrangements in the workplace. He asserts that such a decision-making process by people right in their own work situations is beneficial. He believes that collective bargaining is a sound alternative to the pervasive state regulation of a social relationship. In that way, unions function as a mediating structure that helps to provide a measure of freedom so that individuals are not isolated or completely dependent upon an all-powerful state.

While thus arguing for the continuing value of trade unions, Kohler emphasizes that not just any kind of trade unionism is beneficial. Speaking as a Roman Catholic Christian, he points out that all human action is normative action; that is, we are responsible for discerning and choosing between good and evil, between justice and injustice.

The problem therefore is not that unions have outlived their usefulness, but that those which have surrendered to a completely secularized, self-centred and politicized view of their role will not be much help in finding answers to the undoubtedly difficult challenges and problems facing both labour and management. The observations of Kohler and Roher deserve the serious reflection of unionists, especially of their leaders. Roher's conclusion is particularly pertinent:

Labour and management will need to initiate significant changes in traditional rules and practices. Labour leaders will need to become the champions of innovation and adjustment in the workplace and play a broader role in the management of the enterprise. Thus, they ought to adopt a more active strategy to achieve change in ways that are consistent with the interests of their members. Management, in turn, will need to accept a broader role for workers and their representatives in the enterprise in return for changes in human resource policies and practices. In this regard, Canadian managers should accelerate efforts to promote change and flexibility with union leaders either through conventional channels of negotiation or by developing new forums for consultation in the workplace.

Overall, these changes will require nothing short of a fundamental rethinking of the nature of the corporation and the role that its employees and their representatives should play in its governance. (Eric Roher, "Labour Has Its Work Cut Out For It," Policy Options, September 1989, p. 11)