Trying Times for Labour Unions
October 1, 1983 -
The economic recession is placing tremendous strain on union members and especially on union executives and negotiators. Many unions have seen their membership decline due to layoffs and business closures. Some have reluctantly accepted wage cuts. In other cases, the diminishing amount of work was stretched by work sharing arrangements. Several provinces have imposed wage restraints on public sector employees, seriously curtailing what most unions perceive their primary function to be, namely, the maximization of wages. Although the economy has picked up considerably, the unemployment rate remains high at 11.3 per cent, which means that one and a half million Canadians are still out of work.
Labour leaders are angry about the cutbacks imposed by the federal and the various provincial governments. "Operation Solidarity," a coalition of groups opposed to the B.C. cutbacks, has already built up a war chest of close to $4- million. There is "not much for labour to celebrate," wrote Ed Finn of the Canadian Union of Public Employees in his Labour Day article published in the Toronto Star on September 5. He concluded:
Beleaguered and facing so many threats, unions in both sectors and in all parts of Canada need inspirational leadership and innovative policies. Many of the traditional union methods, as effective as they were in the boom times, are inappropriate for the post-industrial era.
CLC president, Dennis McDermott, has accused the federal government of being inconsistent by advising Canadian consumers to spend more and at the same time tighten their belts and restrain their wage demands to get the economy going again.
While the radical Left (e.g., the contributors to Canadian Dimension) continue to call for an all-out struggle against "capitalism," there are indications that hard times are bringing about a closer cooperation of labour and management and a growing awareness that the success of a business is a joint responsibility. One indication of such a change is the marked decline in the number and length of work stoppages. The 1983 edition of the Current Industrial Relations Scene in Canada, published by the Industrial Relations Center at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, describes this change as follows:
For the first time in the postwar period, the collective bargaining system has had to operate in a prolonged period of slow and negative economic growth. The hefty economic settlements of the earlier periodârelied on heavily by both sides to solve all problems, or at least to anesthetize themare no longer available; as a substitute, more non-monetary and "fundamental" solutions must be found.
Construction Unions on the Defensive
During good economic times, construction unions were able to maintain a monopoly position on construction jobsites by means of non-affiliation and subcontracting clauses in their collective agreements. The cost of their ever-rising wage and benefit demands were simply passed on to the consumer.
Declining employment and dwindling profits in the construction industry, however, have caused a major shift to less expensive non-union contractors, and the Canadian Construction Association is pushing hard for concessions from construction unions. This trend is especially noticeable in western Canada. In Alberta 75 per cent of construction was performed by union labour last year, but that percentage shrunk to 38 per cent this year. In Saskatchewan the union sector of the construction industry dropped to a mere 20 per cent. Aiding the trend toward non-union construction is the federal government's decision that projects in its jurisdiction will not be bound by the federal Fair Wages Act. In addition, institutions such as hospitals, school boards and municipalities are dropping the union-only rule. As labour reporter Wilfred List wrote:
Construction unions in the United States have recognized that to maintain what they now have reguires some adjustments to cut costs. The unions in Canada may have to make the same accommodation to stay alive at a time when governments either offer little sympathy or whittle away at their existing protections (Globe and Mail, September 26, 1983).
At first glance, opponents of compulsory unionism may see these developments as most welcome. However, the remedy to trade union monopoly is not to eliminate trade unions. For example, the Alberta government has been contemplating the repeal of Section 133 of its Labour Act, which prevents unionized companies from setting up parallel, non-union companies in order to avoid their responsibilities under a collective agreement.
Needed is labour legislation that recognizes and protects legitimate trade unions while safeguarding contractors and the public from monopoly power. The first step in the right direction would be to repeal subcontracting and non-affiliation clauses and thereby free the industry from the dictates of a union cartel.