It would be naive to argue unions won’t struggle with the new environment, he adds, “but at the end of the day it really becomes an issue of survival, and I think there’s a new reality emerging.”
President of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters
The message from business today is that companies need employees – and their unions – to be more flexible, says Jayson Myers, who heads Canada’s largest industry and trade association.
“What I see today is that a lot of newer companies in particular, they need flexibility and they really do not want to see themselves in a situation where they have to deal with a bureaucratized work force,” says the head of the CME, which represents companies that account for 82 per cent of Canada’s manufacturing production.
While the best unions are at the progressive forefront of helping adapt to change, he says, others “are reactionary and stand out there and impede change.”
Mr. Myers says a major challenge for labour unions is helping workers understand that the old “pick and play” system of hiring is dead, which means adapting to a new reality in which companies can no longer pick workers to fill narrowly defined jobs.
“That’s an old way of thinking and an old work-force culture,” he says. “Today it is really about bringing skills to bear, but also about solving problems, being flexible, doing various jobs, multitasking. That requires a very different type of business culture.”
Many of the conditions that led to the formation of unions 40 or 50 years ago – such as unsafe work environments – no longer exist, he argues, and unions must now deal with new issues, including the need for companies to attract new kinds of workers in new areas even as they downsize workers in other areas.
“The situation is so fluid today that the expectation from business today is that the labour movement and organized labour needs to be as flexible,” he says.
“I don’t want to classify all unions as regressive. I think there are some very progressive unions out there. And many unions are at the forefront of not only representing workers but also helping business find the workers they need.”
Dean of Social Sciences at McMaster University
Labour specialist Charlotte Yates believes the union movement needs a clearer strategy to hold on to past gains and win back lost influence.
The key task, she says, is to regain public support in an era when many Canadians think union members have excessive entitlements or union leaders have unrealistic expectations.
While unions used to have more input in politics – at least with left-leaning parties – their role in the public realm has diminished and it has led to an erosion of popular support for union causes, Prof. Yates says.
“Unions have forfeited a lot of the ground they once held in terms of political and policy ideas,” she says.
“They need to have a concerted political strategy, because they cannot win at the collective bargaining table on their own. There has to be a more concerted political and social strategy that starts articulating alternatives and talks about the need for governments to play a role.”
How can they win public support? Prof. Yates says unions need to advocate broadly on issues that affect all workers, especially low-income workers who lack a voice. Otherwise, she says many in the public look at labour-union members with resentment.
“Labour becomes vulnerable when they speak for their small group,” she says. “If you also pick up on issues that resonate more broadly, I think that holds hope for strengthening the position of unions.”
On the other hand, she also warns companies that they need to be careful not to excessively exploit their advantage in a period of economic weakness because they will risk doing significant damage not only to employee loyalty, but to company productivity.
“There’s lots of evidence to suggest that if you treat people badly then, yes, they will leave, but they will also tend to be less productive. We know that.”