My problem with unions

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday June 11 2014 in Opinion
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Don’t get me wrong, but I have a love-hate relationship with unions. Hate is probably too strong a word, but the oxymoron works better than “love-dislike”.


Working people all over the world have a great deal to be thankful for where unions are concerned. They came about because working people were being abused and it was necessary to prevent that from persisting. So, they grouped together to form an alliance that, with the threat to withdraw their services – the only significant tool they had – they engineered changes in the workplace over time.


We owe much to unions. Better pay, better working conditions and greater respect for the contributions of workers are the results of the sacrifices that unions faced and conquered over the years.


The corporate world, bent on achieving more profits, were forced to accept the necessity of this partnership – and it is a partnership (like a shotgun wedding) – that demonstrated that a happy worker is a boon to its bottom line. Thus, maintaining that relationship in a positive way is good business practice.


Today’s unions are facing a crisis, and it is a crisis on two fronts; the normal combativeness of the corporate world on the one hand, and the challenge of its membership in maintaining its confidence that they are on the workers side.


There are parallels. The corporate world is changing, and at a rapid rate. The quest to seek greater rewards has not seen the same rate of response to the changes on the unions’ side. They are still playing “catch-up”. From my point of view, what has happened to unions is that internal politics – the politics of power – have stymied the social justice role for which unions are historically well-known. Although in some circles, the unions continue to be active in protecting the rights of workers, there are times when one has to wonder whether it is the rights of workers they are protecting or is it the unions and their bosses.


The NDP government in Ontario during the early 90s was faced with that question. Then Premier Bob Rae was faced with an economy in crisis and asked the public service unions for some leeway by renegotiating the existing contract. Rae wanted to avoid major layoffs and wanted to bring in a reduced work week that amounted to job-sharing – the infamous Rae Days. This way, employees would be able to keep their jobs although their earnings, technically, would be less. (I accept that the deal was a bit more complicated than this.) The unions would not support the deal, so the government legislated it.


The Rae Government was defeated in 1995, giving way to the Harris “Common Sense Revolution” that went on a cost-cutting rampage. Many in the public service unions lost their jobs as result.


The Rae Government also brought in Employment Equity legislation during its term. Up front, the unions were largely supportive but there was a problem. The legislation would challenge the long-held belief that seniority was sacrosanct. Because the legislation would provide protection for the four designated groups of the Employment Equity Act, it would mean that senior workers in a particular unionized setting would stand to lose their jobs, if layoffs were in the cards, in favour of retaining members of the designated groups.


The Bill had to be revised to except seniority, a major challenge to the success of the goals of the Employment Equity Act.


Like the Employment Equity Act, a number of the initiatives introduced by the Rae Government that favoured persons of African descent and other racialized groups were lost with its defeat in 1995. It was a defeat, which in mind, was helped – actively or passively – by the unions who felt their self-interests were betrayed – a case of cutting one’s nose off to spite one’s face.


It is this kind of “double-edgedness” that bothers me with unions. Yes, it will support and protect human rights, anti-racism and all the equity provisions on a mass scale. Once the status quo is challenged – the social justice issues clashing with long-held principles or belief – the support mechanism buckles.
The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) recently elected its first racialized president, Hassan Yussuff. The Guyana-born Yussuff has served as Executive Vice-President and Secretary-Treasurer of the CLC for a long time. I should also mention that Marie Clarke Walker was also returned as Executive Vice-President of the CLC.


There was a time when the CLC was everywhere, as it were. It challenged governments in Ottawa and spoke up loudly and clearly in support of the workers’ side of the economy. It is as if the organization went underground, and not in a good way, over the last few years.


Perhaps under Yussuff’s leadership, the national labour picture will find its voice again. It doesn’t always follow that racialized leadership in a national organization is good leadership, but one can only hope that this change is a strong signal that things will be different; that unions will begin to realize that they must also keep their commitment to equity. /tweet: @pghntr

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