One of the most hard-won victories of the labour union movement over the years has been the right to bargain collectively. A significant part of that “advantage” is the ability of employees to be able to withdraw their services en masse to back their demands. Over the years, we have seen various attempts, not only to reverse that union strategy, but to essentially destroy labour unions.
Most recently, to show its newly acquired majority muscle, the Conservative Government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper moved very quickly to stop the strike or job action of Air Canada employees on three different occasions. It brought in, or threatened to bring in, legislation to force the airline’s employees back to work.
The government’s rationale for doing so: the employees threatened economic growth. That had to be the clearest statement that there was to be a new way of attempting to destroy, or render ineffective, the status and power of unions since just about any job action could be put into that broad band of “threatening economic growth”.
Taking a page from the Conservative strategy book, the Ontario Liberal government decided that it would launch its own pre-emptive strike against teachers. Legislation was quickly put in place to prevent teachers from not only withdrawing their services, but seemingly to take negotiations out of the equation. The Ontario government essentially said: “This is what is going to happen, notwithstanding what we said before”.
The teachers’ unions have launched an advertising campaign to state their position on what they consider to be a broken promise by the McGuinty government which now seems to be widening that posture to include all public sector unions.
Now, it does not take a genius, or a poll, to show that the attitude of Canadians towards labour unions is, at best, mixed, in spite of what they do for their membership. Unions have fought for and won considerable benefits for their membership – benefits that even accrue to non-members. They have earned job protection, pensions, better healthcare benefits, better wages and a list of other gains that attempt to balance the earnings of employers with those of the people who actually do the job.
Having earned the legal right to negotiate on behalf of their membership, unions are expected to push for as much as they can. The essence of negotiations is that they will not always get what they demand, but they will reach an agreement that closely reflect what they seek, and what the employer can afford to yield.
Like you, I too get annoyed when a strike disrupts my activities. A transit strike, for instance, leads to many discomforts. And while it seems, most of the time, the matter has to do with salaries, many of the underlying demands are for the protection of what many of the workers have won over the years, including safety in the workplace.
Unions that fall within the public sector envelop may have slightly different expectations and outcomes. Businesses have always sought the cheapest way to produce their goods and services. Now, with the growth of technology, the ability to find that cheaper way of producing has widened considerably.
Public sector unions may not fear the loss of jobs due to plant closure, but they fear the loss of jobs and job security, and all that entails, as governments change policies and other practices in the name of efficiency.
Here is where some of the difficulties come into play. Governments are elected by the people – us – not only to protect the majority of its people and to ensure that there is a balance of rights and responsibilities. But what we have in these situations are governments taking the power entrusted in them as lawmakers to limit the legitimate actions we can take to negotiate.
In the cases cited above, the governments argue that they are protecting the economy. The unions argue that they have earned the right to negotiate on behalf of their membership – a process that is respected. To arbitrarily take that right away is not the way a democratic society behaves.
We have come to know that governments need checks and balances. It is one thing to have an opposition in Parliament – an opposition that will almost always be out-voted in a majority government. But, there are areas in our society where the interests of the people must be made known, even when they are not in a direct position to contest the outcome. The unions represent one such avenue.
So, in as much as we may feel annoyed, or indeed angry, at the actions taken by unions, they serve a very valid and well-meaning purpose.
One attempt to re-establish the power of the union is the movement to merge to create an entity that will carry greater weight in the face of declining memberships. The Canadian Auto Workers has begun the process of merging with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union. In all likelihood, there will be more of these.
Finally, a quick look at the industrial side of unions. At the international level there have been some attempts to universalize the conditions of workers. That is one of the main purposes behind the International Labour Organization, a UN body.
One would think that more energy would be put into ensuring that the labour standards and worker demands are so established worldwide that it would serve to mitigate the threat of plant closures to facilitate cheap labour.