A Discussion of "Beyond Unions?"

 
September 1 st 2002

In the previous issue of Comment, Ray Pennings argued that

If [unions] intransigently resist the change and try to hold onto the old order, the system will implode. They will be replaced by the emerging worker representative organizations. If, on the other hand, they creatively respond to the challenge of creating high-trust workplaces and are willing to adapt their structures to accommodate the desires of workers who are clearly looking for other options than the status quo, they have the opportunity of being a stimulus for change and promoting a balance between the social and economic challenges that will produce inevitable tensions. [ read full essay]

In this issue, we are printing responses to Pennings' essay and his reply.


Hugh Finnamore:

Ray Pennings' essay "Beyond Unions?" adds his voice to the growing call for reforming the popular concept of modern trade unionism. That reformation is upon us and gathering momentum.

Despite stakeholders' attempts to maintain the status quo of our current labour relations framework, unions are indeed sliding fast into insignificance. Pennings provides good examples of alternate representation models as evidence of that demise. However, by decorporatizing union structures and embracing the historical concepts that gave life to the labour movement, unionism, without a doubt, will flourish.

If we were able to globally implement Pennings' suggestions of treating one another with civility and mutual respect, the world would be much better for it. In such a world, there may not be a need for collective representation—period.

As stated in Pennings' essay, I do not subscribe to the Supreme Court's generalized and antiquated theory of unionism. From my cynical perspective, governments work not for the benefit of society as a whole but for the interests of big business and institutionalized unions to ensure that people who work for a living are better controlled in order to protect market productivity from disruption.

Think about it. If governments really thought that society would benefit from the unionization of people who work for a living, instead of Labour Day they would legislate Union Day, where union representatives would be given access to all Canadian workers to pitch the societal benefits of unionism. Governments would encourage workers to seek workplace representation. Instead, governments enact legislation that favours large corporate players over mom and pop operations.

As well, I don't subscribe to the belief that all unions are social institutions governed by their members. In effect, most unions long ago transformed themselves from collegial organizations into corporation-like service providers characterized by top-down decision making, an exclusionary structure, a broad agreement with business political goals, and an intolerance for democratic dissent at all levels.

That being said, even if most unions truly reflected the Supreme Court's flawed perspective, they would still be like dinosaurs floundering in tar pits. Globalization is killing the corporate union model. However, it will not kill unionism, but it will change it in significant ways.

Although many of today's major problems are global, they still have profound local effects. Federal governments, corporations, and central labour bodies stand on the sidelines, unable to influence much at either level. However, in the past decade, computer-mediated communication (CMC) has exponentially promoted the building of new social communities based on interests, not physical proximity. People who work for a living are now communicating on a large scale in real time. That ability to communicate puts great power at the fingertips of people who work for a living. Likewise, with the push of a button, an individual can wreak more havoc than 500 on a picket line. In effect, you don't need thousands in close proximity to wield collective power.

Prior to the Second World War and before the corporatization of unions began in earnest, minority unionism was recognized by the American Federation of Unions for groups of "wage workers of good character and favorable to Trade Unions." In effect, minority unionism is one of the seeds from which today's unions evolved. Glocalism will spawn a resurgence of minority unionism or, as it is now beginning to be called, "open source unionism."

For an example of reformation thinking at legislative levels, one should compare New Zealand's Employment Contracts Act (ECA) 1991 and its Employment Relations Act (ERA) 2000. The ECA rejected collective action and bargaining, thrusting aside decades of practice by allowing individual employment contracts and several employment representation options. Elected in 1999, the Labour Party overhauled the ECA and renamed it the ERA. In its present form, it is described as representing a middle course between the ECA and outdated systems of the past.

As there have always been people who work for a living, so there will always be a need for strength from collective activities. As we no longer use a horse for regular transportation, we will probably have little if any use for a corporatized union in workplace representation. I believe that unionism is already materializing in ways proposed by Pennings and in ways yet to be seen.


Ed Bosveld:

While his conclusion—that mutual respect between worker and manager will lead to prosperity—is solid, Ray Pennings' starting point in "Beyond Unions?" is not. Pennings suggests that unionization levels in the U.S. are in significant decline and that Canadian "parallels can be expected."

The latest U.S. numbers show that union members make up 13.5 per cent of the workforce. However, when non-members who are represented by a union are added in, the rate climbs to about 15 per cent. Comparable statistics have only been kept since 1983, when the rate was 20.1 per cent.

While this indicates a drop in the last 20 years, it's not as dramatic as Pennings suggests. In fact, it appears that the real number of union members hasn't changed much, while the workforce has grown. And, in Canada, despite some ups and downs, union density has remained relatively steady for decades. That's in contrast to marked drops in rates of unionization in much of the industrialized world, including Britain, France, and Australia.

Pennings notes the significant portion of workers who have collective representation but are not unionized. It might be worth further examining the trend by many non-union collective organizations—doctors' associations, for example—to act more like unions, by bargaining collectively and threatening or utilizing work stoppages.

In Canada today, some of the most successful unions are those that are the most militant. It's simplistic—and perhaps completely wrong—to suggest that respect and cooperation alone will ensure the future health of unions. Unions need to withdraw from distractions such as politics and social action. By focusing on providing a quality service to existing members, and directing significant resources to aggressively organize non-union employees, Canadian unions can continue to avoid the decline seen elsewhere in the world.


Kevin Jeske:

Ray Pennings points out two separate trends in Canadian society. First, Canadians are supportive of workplace representation, even if they do not support everything about how unions actually carry out their work. Second, union density is declining, and changes to the modern workplace make the future a glass half empty.

How is it, he wonders, that people can be choosing ever less of something they say they approve of? What steps are available to allow employees to act on their preferences?

Pennings asks good questions, but his answers lack follow-through. Essentially, he argues for attitudinal changes on the part of governments, workers, employers, and unions.

Would that it were so simple. If it were, no one would pass hitchhikers on the freeway, because we know that we should offer a ride; tax returns would be fudge-free; you could trust the average corporate earnings report; kids would mow the lawn on Saturday morning.

There are two major developments that have marginalized the union movement to an erstwhile good-old-days institution, days that everyone says they love but nobody would want to go back to. First, governments and companies have won the historic recognition battle. Unions gave up the old back alley strike path to recognition in exchange for legal recognition. This historic compromise has not turned out well for unions, as governments have whittled away at labour codes, raising the bar to obtain legal recognition. Second, governments have enabled the contracting out of core services, causing union jurisdiction to be eaten away like a sand castle in the path of a rising tide.

The Wagner model has proven to be a colossal failure, pitting unions directly against companies for the right to represent workers, and, more importantly, pitting union supporters against their fellow employees who do not wish to belong to the union.

So, then, is it all governments' fault for eroding the historic compromise? Not exactly. Unions have steadfastly fought to fix the rules of a flawed game, rather than look at other legislative models that allow for more participatory membership. If unions had advocated for a model that featured these participatory values, they would only be fighting a two-front battle: for legislative change and for the hearts and minds of workers. As it now stands, their battle has a third front: each and every employer they look to certify, including those workers they seek to sweep in.

It seems tired and trite to state that a union is only as strong as its members but only in its current application. Change the model, and the saying takes new life. I will use one simple example to prove my point. My wife's minivan had a flat tire recently. Did she phone her husband? The police? No, she called her union, the car drivers union, otherwise known as the British Columbia Automobile Association. This union has—count 'em—four-million members. That's more than the entire Canadian labour movement combined. Not one of these members joined because 50 per cent plus one of the people on their block voted to join, and they were just swept in. Rather, everyone joined voluntarily, happily, and at a cost. Why? Because this union offers them the services they need.

Wake up, Buzz; wake up, Judy; wake up, Naomi; wake up, Alexa. The answers are staring us all in the face.


Ray Pennings Responds:

Taken as a group, the responses to "Beyond Unions?" reinforce the basic point I was trying to make: continued economic and social prosperity require that both our economic institutions and public policy framework adapt to new forms of collective bargaining processes, the result of which will be something very different than what we think of when we talk about unions today.

As we increasingly rely on knowledge and information capital for our competitive advantage, a case can be made that what in the past may have been the focus of governments or unions in the future will be the focus of supra-national structures (such as the European Union or a NAFTA tribunal) or citizen advocacy, community, and consumer groups. And, to pick up on a point Hugh Finnamore makes, the emergence of computer-mediated communication will likely result in different types of protest being utilized rather than the traditional picket line and public protest.

Finnamore and I agree on the need for continued collective activities on the part of workers and expect worker organizations to continue on the road of change. His comment that if the civility and mutual respect that I called for materialized, then "there may not be a need for collective representation—period" does highlight a different emphasis than what we bring to the table.

While there will always be plenty of bad attitudes and bad apples operating in the economic world to make this argument entirely hypothetical, I do posit that the greatest benefits of collective bargaining processes will be realized in an environment of civility and mutual respect. Collective bargaining is not only a defensive mechanism to protect workers' interests but also a positive means of adding value to the workplace by providing a mediating structure to organize the divergent opinions within a workforce into a coherent voice.

An independent worker's organization is best suited to obtain the unvarnished wisdom from the front-line troops. The perspective will always look different from management and worker sides of the table, and establishing normative structures where both listen to and try to understand each other can only advance the interest of both the company and the workers.

Ed Bosveld, while agreeing with my conclusion, takes issue with both my starting premise and the contention that cooperation rather than militancy will ensure the future health of unions. As for whether or not prospects for unionization levels are as negative as my essay suggests (citing other leading sources and conferences dedicated to the subject) or should be subjected to a more positive spin (by citing the even worse numbers from Britain, France, and Australia) really doesn't affect my core argument. I simply cited these numbers as a likely impetus for otherwise unwilling unions to address the fundamental issues I raise. If they choose to address other reasons, that is quite fine by me as well.

Bosveld may be right that the most successful Canadian unions are "those that are the most militant," although that depends on how we define success and militancy. Long-term survival and growth for the labour movement will not happen if unions see themselves as mercenary fighters pausing only during collective agreement ceasefires. But neither will it come through weakness. If by militant Bosveld means unions that provide quality core services, stand up for their members interests, and aggressively promote themselves to prospective members, I agree, although I prefer to characterize such unions as strong rather than militant. If by militant he means fighting for the sake of fighting, I'm afraid we disagree.

Kevin Jeske provides helpful examples in specifying changes to core Wagner assumptions, our recognition process, and the provision of union services that are essential to helping unions grow. And although he rightly points out that the attitude change I call for is inadequate, I do insist it is a necessary first step.

I agree that follow-up steps are required. The suggestions I made include: increased worker involvement in their representative institutions; the investment in soft-skills training for front-line employees and management representatives; the allowance in public policy for pluralism; and new methods of developing and funding training programs and institutions. While some of these suggestions may emerge on an ad-hoc basis in response to specific circumstances, a fundamental change of attitude is a necessary prerequisite for them to become reality.