Monday, March 14, 2011

No Power Greater

Solidarity Forever - The events of the past month in Wisconsin and several other states in the US have compelled me to write a few thoughts about unions and collective bargaining.
I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Vancouver where the majority of families were connected to trade unions. Most members of my family have been proud members of a union at one time or another in their lives. This tradition has extended at least four generations from my grandfather being active in the Seaman’s Union to the Crown Prince who was a member of CUPE while he worked part time going to school.  I have been a member of CUPE for almost 34 years and have served in the thankless position of shop steward for a brief period and will now become more active again as a representative on our bargaining committee.
There are several misunderstandings and outright falsehoods about unions here are a few:
I pay dues to the union but it’s never done anything for me” – For starters, the union is not some separate foreign entity; it is you and co-workers on your right and your left.  When was the last time you attended a union meeting? Have you ever asked for assistance from the union? The living wages and decent benefits were attained by collective bargaining not by the generosity of your employer.
“Union wages are too high and create unemployment” – This exactly the opposite. Employment only increases when the demand for goods and services increases and production of these goods and service requires more manpower. When an employer pays a decent living wage the employees will have more disposable income to purchase their and other employers products. This causes a multiplier effect in which rather than each party taking either a bigger or smaller slice of the pie; the pie becomes bigger for everyone. The idea of trickle-down economics has been proven time and time again to be a failure. No employer ever created a job magnanimously; the demand for his product created the jobs so he could keep up with the demand.
“Union employees are lazy and you can’t fire them” – Workers, both union and non-union, as a rule take pride in their efforts. There are lazy workers and employers. People do not want to work alongside or for slackers. As for firing, every collective agreement contains to very important sections; the management rights section that allows the employer to operate his business in a productive fashion and to lay off employees for economic reasons and a disciplinary section which includes all steps required both for discipline including dismissal for cause. What the contract does is protect the employee from being unreasonable or vindictive disciplinary action.
“I don’t need a union. I make more than a union worker gets for my job” – Yes, maybe this is true but the reason you are getting that wage is because your employer is trying to stay competitive with similar union shops. Also, more than likely when you include benefits such as extended health, dental and pensions at best you are getting equal compensation. If similar skill set positions were not unionized, your wages would be lower. Again an employer is not going to just pay high wages because he is a generous person, he is going to pay the market price for labour just as he is going to pay market prices for raw materials.
“Unions are too politically powerful” – It is the political influence of unions that has brought about changes that we have all become accustomed to. It was labour’s influence that brought about universal healthcare, pensions, workers’ safety, paid vacation, overtime compensation and a reasonable work week. However, the actions of the Wisconsin governor and other governors throughout the US have proven that a lot of what has been fought for is fragile when large corporate donors  attempt to distort the balance of power.
“I will lose everything I gained from belonging to a union when we go on strike.” Over ninety percent of contracts are settled each year without even the threat of a strike vote being invoked and an even greater percentage of unionized workers will retire without ever spending one day on the picket line.
“We should have ‘Right to Work’ laws here” – Jurisdictions with “Right To Work” laws have the lowest mean average incomes, highest poverty rates and lowest literacy rates in the United States. Right to Work really means the right to work for less. A good dramatic example of this can be seen in the movie “Norma Rae” which is based on the Garment  Workers’ Union  fights against the J P Stevens Textile Company in the southern United States.
To continue to protect your hard earned rights as a worker, I urge everyone to become politically active and seek out and support candidates that are friendly to workers’ rights and to defeat candidates like Scott Walker in Wisconsin that take their marching orders from anonymous corporate donors.
Thank you and enjoy the rest of your day here in the Magic Kingdom. Oh crap, wrong theme park! ;-)


  1. I too have belonged to several generations of Union workers - my father was never a big fan of his union, and I have to say that I felt betrayed by CUPE 1004 after all was said and done - in part because of how they failed to go to bat for me in the way I wanted (they appeared far more worried about their position with the employer than about my concerns or exploitation) when they, just a year earlier, had managed to get reinstated one of the most dangerous and incompetent First Aid attendants I've ever known. It seems that the Union picks and chooses based on their own politics and sometimes this is in accord with what employees want and sometimes it isn't. Maybe this is life, but at the last check, a union was supposed to stand up for the people it represents in the way they want them to, not in the way that suits the Union's political agenda best.

    What is really interesting though is that what has happened in Wisconsin will continue at a guess. Look at Gordo and all he has done for BC - he was the Margaret Thatcher for our province, breaking Unions left, right and center to meet his political agenda. What is being done by the Republicans in Wisconsin is therefore not all that surprising.

    Let's take a look at China for a moment - I think this nation summarizes the world quite nicely right now. Each year there are ~6 million University Graduates, mostly BAs but also MAs and Fudds (PhDs). Despite the growth of the Chinese economy, the government is NOT creating an equal number of jobs, and wages are declining steadily in the face of this. Having a BA or MA means nothing when employers can hire a PhD instead - not only hire a PhD, but hire them at a pittance compared to what they would have had to pay 20 or 30 years ago - or even 10. Are there unions in China? Apparently, but they don't seem that effective in securing wages for their employees - and even if there are unions, they could be entirely crushed by the employers who, after contacting the police and military, could simply bring in all new non-union workers and give them the jobs at half the pay because those people are desperate for work.

    This is happening in the US as well - ~64K PhDs are released into the wild each year in the US, and their wages are steadily dropping to the point where you have to take on two or three jobs just to make the same as you did with one job 10 years ago. Of course, the unions are still here, but if you take a look at education, there is almost no chance of earning tenure at a University in the West (and by West I mean North America and Europe), and of course, they can work around Union requirements by creating new titles that essentially restrict their new employees to doing scut work for cheaper wages because they know these people need a job.

    Does this sound the death knell for unions? As the US economy stagnates and unemployment remains, it does run the risk, particularly for jobs where any monkey could do them. Take the PNE for example - most of the Public Safety and F&B staff could be replaced with their non-Union Mexican equivalent (sorry, Simpsons quotation) and no one would know the difference in work quality. Trade unions on the other hand will give up the ghost much harder - but with the glut of workers and lack of jobs, union power diminishes with each non-union business equivalent that spawns like Pod People that charge a cheaper rate than their union equivalent *points at you and screams.* It started with outsourcing to China and it continues with political agendas that seek to finish what outsourcing started.

    Like I said at the beginning, my father always had mixed (predominately negative) views of Unions. I have come to share that view as well in light of my own experiences. Still, it will be a sad day when the last union falls.

  2. As a worker in a Union shop I appreciate my Union for the collective bargaining power it gives me, and working in retail gives me a first hand, front row seat as to the effect lower disposable income has; I personally agree with the trickle down economics that comes with more disposable income. Truthfully, when our numbers are down our hours get cut. When our hours fall below a certain level our benefit scale drops. Even as a Union member, the Union is only strong as long as the employer is profitable. With the province going to "hell in a handcart" with our support systems the people who should be working in that sector earn less, spend less, do less, and live with less to make ends meet. Those of us on the low end of the Union pay scale will eventually fall off the rungs....