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Unions Under Siege

October 1, 1985 -

"The Canadian labor movement is fighting for its life," stated Dian Cohen in her Maclean's column of August 12, 1985. Membership is dwindling, and the unions face challenges to their control over jobs and to their right to require workers to join their ranks. These problems, Ms. Cohen believes, are structural rather than temporary. International competition, the conflicting demands of a variety of interest groups, and changes in the composition of the workforce and the nature of work itself compound the bewilderment and growing ineffectiveness of many unions. According to Cohen, if unions wish to succeed in the future, "union leadership will have to develop characteristics that are painfully lacking on the labor scene now. First among them is the ability to manage several competing interests at once, and to adapt to a workforce that is diversifying quickly. Success also hinges on how well union leaders judge which issues are legitimate subjects for collective bargaining and which would be better dealt with through joint study between workers and bosses."

Although the frustration and siege mentality of Canada's labour leaders is understandable, writes Cohen, fighting for yesterday's agenda will not help them out of their present difficulties. She concludes: "Labor must find co-operative ground with management and embrace a wider constituency than its own union membership. That means developing imaginative ways to resolve conflict and rising above the animosity of the old-fashioned picket line."

No Imagination

"Canadian unions face life and death struggle," announced Ed Finn, information officer for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (Toronto Star, September 2, 1985). According to Finn, Labour Day 1985 found the Canadian labour movement isolated and under siege, threatened with the plummeting of membership figures already so evident south of the border. Finn laments the misunderstandlng and slander of Canadian unions by the press and by reactionary employers, politicians, and other enemies of the working man. The private sector, he writes, "detests" unions and is out to "crush" them. Nonetheless, argues Finn, unions are the main instrument for distributing income in this country, and are the chief advocates of social security measures and of the welfare state. Unions are an essential component of a free, fair and flourishing society and Canadians must realize this before it is too late. Meanwhile, Finn hopes that leaders like Dennis McDermott and Bob White will outsmart the combined enemies of labour and secure a future for Canadian workers.

In his depiction of the current Canadian labour scene, Finn resorts to the same rhetoric of confrontation and distrust that has plagued labour relations in Canada for so long. He ventures not a single suggestion for new approaches or attitudes on the part of labour. Without a more realistic attitude, one that is sensitive to the needs of workers and to the long-term interest of society, leaders like Ed Finn, Dennis McDermott, and Bob White will herd their members into a future of increasing irrelevance and disillusionment. They have only themselves to blame.