By John Allemang, Globe and Mail, March 24, 2012
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.”
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.
Political parties must re-invent themselves when they find the public has rejected their brand. Corporations have to re-brand themselves when, for example, they find, as Toyota did, a major safety defect and public confidence plummets. Social and domestic history is filled with the stories of families who, through a confluence of factors, have to face their own need to re-invent themselves, after a death, or a divorce or a financial disaster, or a political oppression. And even individuals have to face the need to re-invent themselves if and when they find the job security they thought they had "went south" with the closing of factories, the transfer of jobs to another country, the politics of personal differences and sometimes even a poor judgement made in the course of performing one's duties.
So, we can hardly be surprised at the evident need, admitted publicly by many inside sources, for a dramatic transformation by the labour movement in many countries.
Just as auto manufacturing companies know there is a large and continuing need for their products, and families know they have a sustaining need for family income, including the self-respect that can only accompany honourable work with dignity, and individuals know they cannot survive without alternative work and income and the needed steps for an effective transition, unions too must find a new and effective structure, and modus operandi to provide the protection that all workers need, especially in a political and economic culture that casts them out as "trash" at the slightest opportunity to 'gut' their pensions and their benefits and their hard-won rights and privileges, including even their job security should the accountants and consultants point to a downturn in the balance sheets.
When many of those rights, privileges and benefits were won, workers were not "in harmony" with boardroom corporate suits; in fact, there were lives lost in viscious fights between the workers and their former "masters"....Today, there is mounting evidence that former antipathy and animosity, even contempt and bitterness are growing between the two groups.
And the political culture has shifted to tip the balance in favour of the corporations, leaving the workers' protection in serious jeopardy.
And while the labour movement has celebrated its frontline "fighters," it does not have a reputation for developing leading strategists, given the short-term perspective of union members for significant "gains" in the next contract. Now union leaders are facing not only public derision but membership ennui, as confidence among members dissipates as quickly as does public support for their movement.
Strategic thinkers, planners and long-term executive planning is clearly needed by all labour organizations, under the umbrella and guidance of the International Labour Organization.
(From the ILO website)
The ILO is the international organization responsible for drawing up and overseeing international labour standards. It is the only 'tripartite' United Nations agency that brings together representatives of governments, employers and workers to jointly shape policies and programmes promoting Decent Work for all. This unique arrangement gives the ILO an edge in incorporating 'real world' knowledge about employment and work.
The unique tripartite structure of the ILO gives an equal voice to workers, employers and governments to ensure that the views of the social partners are closely reflected in labour standards and in shaping policies and programmes.
The main aims of the ILO are to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues.
The ILO was founded in 1919, in the wake of a destructive war, to pursue a vision based on the premise that universal, lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice. The ILO became the first specialized agency of the UN in 1946.
One of the "files" of their issues is dubbed "decent work". Here is how the website defines that file.
Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.
However, the "on-the-ground" application of such definitions involves the detailed terms of the contracts that are written, disseminated and signed between employers and employees. And the clauses in those contracts, if such contracts can even be negotiated in new workplaces (and let's not forget that entrepreneurship generates most new jobs!) they will likely be devoid of the kinds of terms for working conditions, pensions, health care and parental opportunities that former contracts once celebrated.
As we have moved to globalization, the comparisons that employers make when designing their employment contracts are less with the competiton across town and more with the workers in the third world, where worker rights and protections are virtually unknown, including even such basics as the right to "clear air" to breathe. These comparisons are, clearly, unfair, unwarranted and unsustainable.
For example, some companies are now returning jobs from China to the U.S. because of lower total costs, when transportation costs are factored into their equations.
Meanwhile, workers struggle to hang on to whatever bits of security they have, and the movement degenerates into many pockets of un-co-ordinated political action, without a perceived national or international strategy, in the face of international corporate batteries of lawyers and accountants.
If the ILO, as an agency of the UN has lost much of its former muscle, perhaps it needs to renew its mandate and its potential, if workers everywhere are to be offered both opportunities and benefits befitting the honour and dignity of their work.
And those attitudes at the highest level of corporate government need a complete overhaul, given the last one or two generations of corporate leadership that can only be characterized as narcissistic, selfish and arrogant, with respect to the future of "labour" as a disparate political interest group.
And even corporation, government, social agency, including the essential services like education, fire and police need workers, and workers professionalism, without the bitterness and resentment that accompany much of current "labour" relationship, especially in light of the current Canadian government's disdain for workers in all sectors.