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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 ...

Even candidate Peggy Nash, a former lead negotiator for the CAW, acknowledges the problems posed by public discontent.

“Unions are facing a difficult climate. There's an unease out there, and some of the biggest challenges relate to the tremendous insecurity people are feeling in the workplace.”

The insecurity is understand- able, but hardly confined to the non-union sector. If anything, union leaders and members are more anxious as they watch their historic power and privileges being eroded by governments and corporations that sense this is the time to attack.

For unions to dictate terms in the labour market, they need to have a strong presence in the private sector. But that's exactly where they have declined, to the point where they cease to set the standard for wages and working conditions. Instead of representing the gold standard that all workers aim for, unions become the symbol of uncompetitive greed and outmoded status.

That reversal in status was highlighted in the labour showdown preceding Caterpillar Inc.'s shutdown of its locomotive plant in London, Ont., when unionized workers refused to accept a 50-per-cent pay cut – a few days before, Caterpillar had reported a $4.9-billion profit. Remaining competitive in the global marketplace was the multinational's avowed goal, and if Ontario wouldn't play along, somebody else would: Indiana, which had just passed “right-to-work” legislation to discourage union organization and keep costs down.

“It used to be the unionized sector that set the pattern,” says Gregor Murray, professor of industrial relations at the University of Montreal. “Now we see clearly in the Caterpillar case that the non-union sector in Indiana becomes the benchmark.”

In a globalized economy, this is known as a location tournament, in which the lowest costs win out over the kind of community values and obligations that tied old-economy companies to their company towns.

It's a battle Canadian unions are not in a position to win.

“We shouldn't kid ourselves,” says CAW president Ken Lewenza. “The multinational companies we deal with can move capital from one jurisdiction to another with no impediment.”

Unions have talked about trying to catch up and become more powerful global entities through the International Trade Union Confederation, especially since the application of Canada's foreign investment laws appears highly arbitrary.

“A lot of these companies are larger than some nation-states,” says Mr. Georgetti. “They have too much power: They need to make a profit but they don't have a structure that lends itself well to the public interest.”

Rebranding the union movement and reclaiming the messaging from anti-unionists isn't going to be easy. Stating the union's case directly to the public through billboards, advertisements and social media is the preferred tactic these days.

But some hard-core unionists think modern technology is less productive than the old fashioned tools of social unionism: conversations around the table, meetings in ethnic and community halls, reaching out to a wider range of disaffected groups.

“It's not enough for union leader to send out tweets in an uncertain world,” says John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Regional Labour Council.

Mr. Gindin is sharply skeptical about the union's appetite for imaginative change.

“The auto workers should have taken over the Caterpillar plant,” he says. “You don't get anywhere by putting out a press release saying Caterpillar's closure is a bad thing – you take it over and force these problems onto the agenda.”

Caught flat-footed by the rise of the Occupy movement – which revealed the attention-getting power of audacious action – union leaders are belatedly recognizing that they need to build support beyond the boundaries of union membership. The historic model of a collective union identity – auto workers working in the same plant, living in the same close community, sharing the same group values – is dead or dying, with what survives perceived as isolated and privileged.

And so, says Prof. Murray, “unions have to change their repertoire, and develop new ways of acting out of these new conflicts: not just ‘Let's have a strike,' but connecting with people in a broader set of debates.”

That was the historic mission of the union movement that helped shape the Canada Pension Plan, medicare and health and safety legislation – a legacy unions have been living off a little too smugly ever since, even as the social contract of the post-war prosperity years has devolved into the harsher survival strategies of post-Thatcher neoliberalism.

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