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Air Canada baggage handlers return to work after a wildcat strike at Pierre Trudeau airport Friday, March 23, 2012 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Air Canada baggage handlers return to work after a wildcat strike at Pierre Trudeau airport Friday, March 23, 2012 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The sorry state of our unions Add to ...

So it has come to this: Even union leaders are losing faith in the power of their unions.

“There used to be a time when we had great respect from the public,” says Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress. “But we've lost that. There's this notion that unions are just out for themselves and not for society. You get that label hung on you, and you have to work to get rid of it.”

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Or as Mark Ferguson, president of a Toronto branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees put it more bluntly in a recent e-mail to a fellow CUPE member who had complained about a failure to win concessions: “The public hates unions right now.” That simmering hatred turned visceral early Friday when a man spat on a female Air Canada employee during a wildcat walkout at Toronto's Pearson airport.

It's a precarious moment for the labour movement. Next week's federal and Ontario budgets will bring thousands of job losses. British Columbia's 30,000 nurses are bargaining and the province's teachers appear headed for a showdown with the government over back-to-work legislation. Toronto's 23,000 inside workers are in a strike position. Meanwhile, the very survival of unions' collective-bargaining powers is at stake.

Witness the Harper government's pre-empting of the Air Canada pilots' right to strike, calling it damaging to the economy, as well as March-break travel plans. “In that case, you can't ever have a strike ... because every strike has an economic impact,” says Buzz Hargrove, former president of the Canadian Auto Workers.

In a hostile environment, unions are beginning to realize that they must alter both their tactics and their attitudes.

“A major defeat is staring us in the face,” says Sam Gindin, a former top union adviser who holds the Packer Chair in Social Justice at York University. “We have to change how unions function.”

Leading Canadian unions are echoing this dissatisfaction and have undertaken an unprecedented exercise in self-criticism and renewal – the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union is in talks with the CAW to create a new private-sector super-union designed to reinvent the labour movement.

“If unions do not change, and quickly, we will steadily follow U.S. unions into continuing decline,” states a discussion paper ominously entitled A Moment of Truth for Canadian Unions.

The unions' motivation to reinvigorate their faltering movement is powerful. Private-sector unions have been unable to halt their steady slide toward oblivion, as traditional manufacturing jobs disappear in a fiercely competitive globalized economy and the growing categories of young service-industry workers and post-industrial independent job-seekers prove impervious to old-style unionization.

Public-sector unions, meanwhile, are on the defensive: In their upcoming confrontations with deficit-slashing governments – the Conference Board of Canada has predicted an increased level of labour conflict this year – they stand to lose the battle for taxpayers' hearts and minds that sees them portrayed as out-of-touch elitists mocking hard-pressed taxpayers with their job security, regular hours and gold-plated pensions.

The hard times that followed the 2008 economic meltdown have fostered class warfare, naturally enough. But much of the hostility, contrary to the usual left-wing analysis, has been directed at the perks and presumptions of organized labour.

“There's been a change in the paradigm,” says Mr. Georgetti. “People used to aspire to belong to a union to get the benefits and be well off. Now the aspiration is, ‘I'd be happy to take those benefits away from someone because I don't have them.'”

The anti-union voices are vocal and influential, even on the CBC. Entrepreneur Kevin O'Leary's bully pulpit on the public broadcaster inspires fear and outrage among union leaders, who recognize his Don Cherry-like power to win over the masses when he opines that unions are evil and their members should be “thrown in jail.”

Influence on NDP waning

As the New Democratic Party meets in Toronto today to select the new Opposition Leader, it should be a heady time to be a union member. But the modern, broadly based NDP is not automatically or instinctively the party of working people, even as its leadership candidates have continued to chase union endorsements and the ready-made organizing abilities that come with them. Electability in a country that has growing reservations about the power of unions often means playing down labour's special place and influence.

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