Beyond Unions?
Beyond Unions?

Beyond Unions?

The real question, then, may not be the question of union decline and revival, but rather the question of how to adapt our structures and public policy to accommodate the emerging forms of worker organization.

August 1 st 2005
Appears in Fall 2005

The role and future of unions is a topic on which there is no shortage of debate. Throughout the 1990s, conferences, papers, and projects dedicated to the revival of unions have occupied the attention of labour relations practitioners. At times, the debate has been characterized by apocalyptic or triumphal rhetoric, the tone betraying the strong pro- or anti-union lenses through which many view organized labour.

When pressed, most will admit that the world is not as black and white as their rhetoric suggests. Even ardent anti-union proponents will concede that there was a time when workers needed the protection of unions and that there may be a few bad-apple employers who still deserve an obstinate and obstructionist union to put the occasional stick in their spokes. And between deciding whether their energies are best spent demonstrating at the next anti-globalization march or developing the next sector-wide organizing strategy, most pro-union ideologues will also concede that at least part of their energies need to be spent addressing the reservations that keep many workers from signing union cards.

However, analyzing the current situation in the framework of a traditional bipolar scale does not adequately capture the significant change that is happening and does not fit the definitions or data usually referenced in these discussions. Emerging forms of collective bargaining-type processes and structures are taking over some of the functions unions historically have performed. Ignoring these developments prevents us from making the necessary adaptations to our economic institutions and public policy framework, an oversight that risks negative economic and social consequences.

Statistics from the United States usually provide the starting point for discussions about the role and future of unions. In the 1950s, almost one-third of the non-agricultural workforce was unionized; today that number is 13.5 per cent. The private-sector unionization rate is nine per cent, and a recent study by Henry Farber and Bruce Western predicts this trend will stabilize at about two per cent, leaving organized labour as little more than a fringe interest group rather than a major economic and social institution.

The overall Canadian unionization numbers have remained relatively stable, declining from a peak 37 per cent to the present 32 per cent; however, the private-sector rate in Canada is 18 per cent, and similar downward pressures are being exerted. Few predict that it will fall as low as it will in the United States, given a different cultural and historical development regarding union and social issues, but general parallels can be expected.

These numbers miss the less obvious but more significant changes occurring in the role of collective representation in workplace organizations. Since there is no accepted "standard" for collecting this data, precision is elusive. A 1999 CPNR-Ekos survey suggests that 48 per cent of Canadian workers have some form of collective representation: 19 per cent belong to professional associations, 10 per cent belong to staff associations, and 32 per cent are unionized. Obviously, these groups overlap somewhat.

Combined, the numbers suggest that 16 per cent of Canadian workers have some form of collective representation but do not belong to certified unions. This is consistent with data collected in a 1996 study by Lipset and Melz which concluded that the number is approximately 14 per cent.

As Daphne Taras, one of the leading voices studying non-union forms of employee representation in Canada, has noted: "The lack of systematic data regarding various forms of employee representation perpetuates the neglect of non-union representation as an important topic in its own right, and facilitates the considerable confusion between representation and employee involvement."

Not only is this challenge faced when examining workplace organization data, but a similar challenge emerges from public opinion data. The Work Research Foundation has been measuring Canadian attitudes towards unions through a biennial survey, beginning in 1997. The latest survey, released in January 2002, indicates that 64 per cent of Canadians say they approve of labour unions while 32 per cent disapprove. Not only is this level of support for unions at its highest since Gallup first asked the question in 1961, but the level of disapproval also fell six per cent since the 1999 survey.

The increased union support cannot be properly interpreted outside the seemingly contradictory data that comes from questions on specific union practices from the same survey. Only 29 per cent of Canadians feel unions should be able to restrict bidding on jobs, and only 42 per cent believe workers should be required to join the union of the majority. Sixty-two per cent suggest that competition between unions for members would improve representation quality. As Dr. Reginald Bibby noted in his analysis of this data, "disenchantment with unions on the part of many former members and those who have never been members in part seems to be associated with some longstanding practices and approaches that are out of touch with the freedom and civility themes pervasive in today's culture."

The real question, then, may not be the question of union decline and revival, but rather the question of how to adapt our structures and public policy to accommodate the emerging forms of worker organization. A decade from now, we will look in the rear-view mirror and realize the significance of the choices we will have made and the distance we have travelled. Trade pressures will have forced it; successful companies will have found ways to innovate, and we will have been propelled by the present public appetite for change. A review of the evidence suggests that we are further down this road of change than many realize.

The data on union attitudes is necessary and helpful, but it does not extend deep enough to help us understand what workers expect out of collective representation structures. From anecdotal evidence and impressions gained from working with employees of several hundred companies in various sectors and jurisdictions, it seems that a significant attitude shift occurred among workers as the new economy took shape in the 1990s. Even pro-company employees sense that relying on individual employers or corporations to take care of them in exchange for their loyalty is not realistic. No one is invincible, and although the blame may be directed to forces out there, such as the so-called corporate agenda or global capitalism, the reality is that every worker realizes they need to take some responsibility for cultivating employment and income options beyond their present employer.

As noted in most of the literature relating to this topic, the diversity in employment relationships and the lack of a standard employment model means existing social programs designed to complement working and income relationships no longer fit many workers. Graham Lowe, a University of Alberta professor who has emerged as a leading and insightful analyst of these changes noted that

the public policy framework that supports employers and workers, such as Employment Insurance, the Canada/Quebec Pension Plans, Workers' Compensation, collective bargaining and labour law, and employment standards are based on outdated assumptions about the kinds of employment relations that characterize the labour market. . . . [The historic model] describes a male work world, in which workers provided adequate effort and labour peace in return for a family wage and job security. . . . Freelancers, consultants, and contract workers now comprise over 10 per cent of total employment. . . . In 2000, 13 per cent of the workforce was in temporary positions. . . . There is greater diversity in the timing and sequencing of life-course events, and how choices and activities in the spheres of paid work, learning, and family have become intertwined.

That an I-need-to-take-care-of-myself attitude emerges from this sort of employment world is hardly surprising. However, it also presents challenges. The complexity of employment and labour law, benefit and retirement plans, and negotiating a price for wages, experience, and learning that occur in a workplace setting is a process that many workers find intimidating.

The 1999 WRF survey provides helpful direction in this matter. In spite of negative attitudes towards contemporary union practices, only three per cent of respondents indicated they would never join a union. The reasons cited that might make them join focused on help for practical front-line issues: improving pay and working conditions, sorting out workplace problems, and increasing training opportunities.

Some workers have the opportunity to latch onto programs through existing relationships. For example, one in four of those self-employed gains access to medical and dental coverage through spousal benefit plans. Over 20 per cent rely on household members as employees or business partners where the definitions of the relationship for legal purposes are murky at best.

But huge gaps exist. Fifty-five per cent of those self-employed do not have medical or dental coverage. In many cases, income protections for illness and maternity leave are inadequate. Shortchanging retirement savings is an attractive means of solving pressing financial issues, but many individuals will not attain income levels to build wealth reserves for the future. The potential social consequences of these arrangements are self-evident.

Individualistic attitudes towards work also have significant economic consequences. Work, by its nature, is a group activity most efficiently (and profitably) accomplished when individual workers put the interest of the group ahead of their personal interest. It is not necessary to review the evidence to establish what we all know from personal experience: a group of workers with good morale and the right mix of skills who work in synergy with each other will produce far more than those same individuals who work with a single focus towards their own self-interest.

According to Lowe, a review of management studies, organizational behaviour, the sociology of work, human resource management, and industrial relations suggest "four key social-psychological dimensions of employment relationships: trust, commitment, influence, and communication." A good job is one in which these four factors are experienced positively by individual employees. These factors do not depend on whether or not the workplace is organized by a union, whether it fits within neat definitions of standard work arrangements, or whether it fits within other paradigms assumed by our public policy labour support system. The most productive and economically successful enterprises are ones where these four factors are experienced.

Essentially, Lowe's four key social-psychological factors of employment relationships reframes the question posed by the data of the WRF study. Traditionally, we have asked how unions should renew themselves, working the premises within the Wagner model. That discussion presumes that among the other purposes of collective bargaining, the central function is to level the playing field between economic interests (labour and capital) that are unequal and in natural conflict.

Collective bargaining structures are an institutional method for a civil society to deal with the economic and social questions that a market economy produces. In this framework, unions are necessary social institutions governed by their members which produce benefits for society as a whole. This is the justification Canada's supreme court adopted in allowing unions to collect dues for social and political causes, even against the objections of individual members.

In a commentary of Lowe's analysis, University of Montreal Professor Gilles Trudeau notes:

Following the first industrial revolution, the intervention of the state (mainly through labour law) soon became necessary to address the fundamental inequality between the employer and individual worker in the labour market. . . . Although the intervention of the state is still needed today, Lowe's analysis makes clear that such intervention cannot be done in a single way. Our labour policy and labour legislation must take into account the growing diversity in employment relationships and individual needs. Furthermore, although the basic role of labour law will always be to protect workers against the adverse effects of a free labour market, we must be careful not to create unnecessary rigidities that could be perceived as detrimental to the economy.

The fundamental flaw underlying union renewal thinking is the inherent premise that collective bargaining needs to take place through structures that currently define unions. The question needs to be reframed so that the focus is on the balance between the protection of individual workers and the collective needs of a workplace to facilitate the working together of individuals. The focus of collective bargaining, then, is not exclusively on the protection of workers against the negative impacts of markets and abusive employers but also the development of workplaces where trust, communication, influence, and commitment can flourish. Those are the workplaces where workers will be able to maximize security and the enterprise will be economically successful.

No single structure or policy solution will accomplish this transformation of collective bargaining and union renewal. New structures will continue to emerge, as they already have, which do some of the things unions were expected to do, but these will not be unions as we historically have understood them. What is significant is not only how we adapt our public policy framework to incorporate the different players and structures that are emerging, to leverage the contribution they make to the public good, but also how existing unions respond.

Many have labelled any variation on traditional unionism as a threat. They suggest, as Donald Wells has, that the consequences of these alignments, whether through new structures or by adaptations of existing unions to collaborative models of labour relations, result in "workers' attitudes to a managerial view of the labour process which left little rationale for unions; weakening the links between union representatives and members; reducing the effectiveness of collective bargaining; and undermining worker solidarity."

The temptation is to simplify the situation by placing the onus on a single institution in society to take responsibility for solving the problem. Like most simplifications, that would be misleading and, if blindly followed, would create a new set of problems as significant as the existing ones. But neither should we avoid analyzing and recommending solutions to the challenge simply because they will be inevitably complex. The social and economic consequences of such neglect will be devastating.

So where to start? First, develop an attitude of ownership of the problem. Even if we narrow the list to those directly affected by issues relating to structuring employment relationships, a few hats still belong to everyone: employer or employee, workplace team member, trainer or trainee, member of union or professional association, citizen, member of a political party, etc. Unless the arguments about the misfit between our current workplace structures and their negative social and economic consequences are mistaken, the impact of ignoring the problem will be significant for all of us in one or the other of our varied roles in life. It will certainly be negative for us as a society.

First steps for most of the institutions emerge from even this simple overview discussion. Workers need to become involved in supportive structures and associations that provide them the information and support necessary to take responsibility for their futures. Almost half of the workforce is already involved in some form of collective representation, although some of this involvement is uneven and immature in its development.

Employers need to recognize that labour is not a commodity. The keys of trust, communication, influence, and commitment require active listening of, learning from, and respect for workers. The creation of workplace structures and the willingness to invest in the soft skills, which cultivate these keys, are areas where most employer and employer organizations would acknowledge requires further work.

Unions need to view these trends as emerging opportunities, not threats. If they 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.

Governments need to realize that the public policy framework is already well behind the times. However, rather than succumb to the temptation of trying to shape the future with a single roadmap, they need to embrace diversity and develop a framework in which the different players can opt for a variety of paths. Rather than turning to government as the stimulus, the focal point of this economic transition is the workplace. Government needs to create the space for all individual and institutional actors to carry out their functions on a fair and level playing field.

This list is by no means complete. Skill development and training also play a very significant role in these changes, and separate training institutions need to factor into this interplay.

This analysis works primarily from a micro-economic framework. Clearly, if the implications of trade and cluster competitiveness (to use some of Michael Porter's framework) are examined, additional challenges emerge for industry organizations and governments. As Thomas Courchene pointed out in his State of Minds: Towards a Human Capital Future for Canadians (see "Cultivating Human Capital" by Gideon Strauss, Comment, May 1, 2001), we need to work within a framework of "glocalization" if we are to deal effectively with our present human capital challenges.

On the one hand, global economic forces at work require a response, and, so far, that response has been largely a change in workers' attitudes to an I-have-to-take-care-of-myself frame of mind. But locally driven solutions, consistent with the trust, commitment, influence, and communication keys outlined earlier, can also be pointed out.

Finding the right solutions starts with asking the right questions. We must all get beyond the pro- and anti- union framework that characterizes so much of the present discussion. Global economic forces beyond their control equally affect employers and workers, and to don different team colours in some global economic fight and beat each other up locally only adds to the victim count and solves nothing. Neither side has a monopoly on virtue or is worth endorsing without qualification.

The solution is to create local work communities that model the sort of respect workers and managers owe each other as fellow human beings and to work within structures that reinforce that respect. Besides the good will and positive benefits of living civilly with our neighbours, solutions based on mutual respect are the best recipe for social and economic prosperity.

Ray Pennings
Ray Pennings

Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, working out of the Ottawa office. Ray has a vast amount of experience in Canadian industrial relations and has been involved in public policy discussions and as a political activist at all levels of government. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, contributing as a commentator, pundit and critic in many of Canada’s leading news outlets and as an advisor and strategist on political campaign teams.


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