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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

KONRAD YAKABUSKI

A radical idea for union leaders: partnership Add to ...

The merger of two of the country’s biggest private-sector unions is supposed to signal a fresh strategy in the embattled Canadian labour movement’s attempt to become relevant again. Instead of an obstinate leadership that fights only for its dues-paying members, the new-and-improved Unifor promises to be a champion for all of Canada’s working stiffs.

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“Working people today are under absolute attack,” Jerry Dias, the anointed candidate vying to lead Unifor, recently told The Windsor Star. “We hope to be a voice for working people. Not just unionized workers, but working people in general.”

Unfortunately, Unifor is off to a poor start. The first thing the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union did in unveiling their merger this month was to denounce Ottawa’s decision to allow U.S. cellphone giant Verizon into Canada. The union bosses didn’t seem to care much about the smartphone bills of non-unionized minimum-wage workers. They spoke only for the 20,000 Unifor members who work for Bell Canada.

This knee-jerk reaction does not augur well for the future of Canadian labour. The union movement remains wedded to a business model that encourages protectionism. It has become an obstacle to beneficial economic and social change, rather than an agent of it. Reliant on member dues to pay for leader salaries, lobbying and political activities, unions rarely seek to represent the low-paid workers most in need of their advocacy. There’s no money in it.

Unions know they have an image problem, but just can’t seem to shake their old habits. A secret CAW-CEP discussion paper prepared last year identified the “growing negative public opinion of unions, and the view that unions are self-interested and outdated” as one of the factors requiring a radical rethinking of the union movement’s overall strategy.

Yet, instead of looking in the mirror, most union leaders and their apologists still prefer to blame someone else for the public antipathy toward organized labour. As McMaster University’s social science dean Charlotte Yates told The Globe: “Politicians in so many instances have turned the tables to say it’s because your neighbour has three weeks vacation that we have a public debt.”

I doubt many Canadians begrudge public-sector workers getting a reasonable amount of vacation time. It’s when they walk off the job to protect the right to bank sick days – as Toronto garbage workers did in 2009 – that they start to test taxpayers’ patience. When the Ontario government ended the bankable privilege for teachers last year, an unprecedented number of teachers suddenly called in sick as the most recent school year wound down.

Public employees are insulated from international competition and, hence, blissfully selfish in their demands. But thousands of Unifor members work for private companies in the so-called “tradable” sector of the economy. It is easier to sympathize with them. Globalization long ago shattered the mid-20th century norm of a high-school education leading to a factory job for life.

Unions in Germany and Sweden have remained strong and relevant by spurning protectionism and in favour of partnering with employers to increase productivity. They have embraced technology and innovation, even if it has led to layoffs in uncompetitive sectors of the economy. With robust training programs, they ensure their work forces are constantly upgrading their skills in order to make their countries the world leaders in advanced manufacturing. Though well paid, unionized workers in Sweden and Germany have kept their wage demands modest in the interest of whole economy. Job sharing was widespread during the recession.

“Unionism has been sustained where organized labour has represented broad constituencies and where it has been a vital participant in national economic performance,” pro-union American professors Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld noted in Foreign Affairs in 2012.

It’s unlikely Canadian union leaders will morph into consensus-loving Germans or Swedes any time soon. Confrontation is what they know best. But if Unifor is to become a truly constructive partner in Canada’s economic success, the merger must lead to more than a name change.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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