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What Happens to Truth

Brewing Success at Great Western

January 1, 1994 -

Relationships in the workplace include a basic conflict between labour and management. (Canadian Auto Workers, Canadian Dimension, November-December 1993)

I believe labor unions as they currently are structured are on a road to extinction unless significant changes occur in American management systems, including labor-management relations. (Mike Bennett, president of United Auto Workers Local 1853, Management Review, August 1993) 

These two statements reflect a stark division within the ranks of the mainline North American trade union movement.

On the one side are the radical (or "progressive") unions, such as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Canadian Auto Workers union, which persist in fighting the old class war, although they shy away from using this term. The truth is that the CAW's reference to a "basic conflict" mentioned above occurs in the context of a defence of a socialist reordering of society. There is a call to "broaden the definition of politics" and to install a "democratized public sector" to serve as "a force for democratizing corporate power in our society—in short, politicizing society.

On the other side are the more pragmatic or "realistic" unionists, such as the UAW local president quoted above, who are convinced that labour and management must begin to accept and treat each other as partners. There is undoubtedly a strong survival motive involved, but there is also a healthy emphasis on the fact that most workers want to be treated with respect and desire a measure of fulfilment in their work.

The outcome of the conflict between the "radicals" and the "moderates" in the trade union movement will have a profound impact on the economic and social wellbeing of this nation. The political activists get a great deal of publicity, especially by exploiting the media and highlighting (and exaggerating) all that is wrong with Canadian society. But those who are quietly busy redirecting labour-management relations and thereby actually improving the lives of workers and the prospects of companies deserve all the more recognition. One such company is the Saskatoon-based Great Western Brewery Co. Ltd.

"We are a business"

Great Western underwent a radical change when 15 employees pooled their resources and bought the brewery after Molson decided to close the plant in 1990. The change in attitude among its 55 full-time employees was remarkable. The workers, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, now are concerned about productivity, quality, workmanship, and competitiveness—things they did not worry about previously.

The new owners drastically reduced the number of managers from 12 to four. Employees rely on their own initiative, and they feel that their contribution is essential for the wellbeing of the company. As local union president John O'Connor explained: "We want productivity and efficiency because we are a business" (The Globe and Mail, December 31, 1993). Employees now put in extra time; yet they have scaled down their wage demands and put their ingenuity to work to solve problems. When the company needed to start up a new production line for canned beer, the employees worked long hours to reconstruct old assembly-line components.

Workers now have a new sense of achievement and a keen interest in the success of the company. As Don Ebelher, one of the employee-owners explained: "When you used to see money being wasted, it didn't really matter that much because it didn't affect your pay cheque. Now we're responsible for everyone else's livelihood."

Great Western still faces many hurdles in the highly competitive beer business. But it has a tremendous advantage in that labour and management are now pulling together instead of being at odds with each other. And that is bound to be in the true interest of all concerned, not in the least because it creates a climate in which workers can experience something of the rewards of a job well done.