Citizen Union: Labour Organizations in Civil Society
Citizen Union: Labour Organizations in Civil Society

Citizen Union: Labour Organizations in Civil Society

Labour officials and activists have been known to point out that corporations have a responsibility to the communities in which they operate. Whether in the maquiladoras along the Mexico-United States border or in small-town Ontario, a company has a moral responsibility to invest in its community.
October 1 st 2004

Labour officials and activists have been known to point out that corporations have a responsibility to the communities in which they operate. Whether in the maquiladoras along the Mexico-United States border or in small-town Ontario, a company has a moral responsibility to invest in its community. Such investment comes in a variety of shapes and sizes: corporations might make financial contributions to charities, encourage staff to volunteer, sponsor sports teams, partner with local government in development projects, open programs and facilities for community use, or take other steps to build community capacity.

Of course, there are perfectly valid business reasons for such corporate goodwill. There is excellent advertising and public relations value in publicly doing good. Communities that are well-developed from a socio-economic perspective produce a strong and stable workforce. And, even with the impact of globalization, corporate executives still need to live somewhere—they should have an interest in bettering their own communities at the very least. But it would be more than a bit cynical to attribute corporate goodwill solely to self-interest.

Do trade unions have a similar responsibility to the society from which they draw their membership?

Historically, many labour organizations played a significant role in their local communities. The union hall often served as a form of community centre, offering a place for members and friends to go after work or on their days off. Wedding banquets and anniversary receptions, education and training meetings, political debates, community meetings, and Labour Day events—replete with free food, children's games, and entertainment—were held at union halls.

Some unions have long been involved in community development as well. The most obvious forum for this has been the United Way appeal, which in many communities is heavily dependent not only on financial contributions from union members, but on time and expertise donated by union staffers. Unions are also involved in directly supporting charities, with popular recipients including women's shelters and safety programs for children.

How far beyond local communities does a union's social responsibility go? It is difficult to answer this question without considering two significantly differing views of the role of the trade union. Many early labour organizations in North America have been described as reform unions. Their intent was not only to represent employees in the workplace. Their over-riding goal was to dramatically change—if not topple—the entire socio-economic order. Market capitalism was simply anti-worker and should not be tolerated.

Today's mainstream labour organizations are often labelled (approvingly or otherwise) as business unions. (In this vein, it is worth noting that many construction unions go so far as to label their staff representatives business agents and their area supervisors business managers.) However, it appears that the term business union has different meanings to different people. In a historical context, the phrase differentiates labour organizations from their more radical ancestors. The business union is content to work within the socio-economic system, choosing to focus primarily on the workplace in its effort to improve the lot of its members. To others, business union is almost a compliment, referring to an organization that isn't distracted by politics or social causes but sticks to its industrial relations knitting.

For many disgruntled union members, however, "biz union" has become a derogative term—a great insult indeed. A biz union is one that has sold out its members and is operating like a business whose shareholders are not the regular union members but rather the small, elite group of union officials who benefit most from the union's operations. (A very interesting web site, which explains this premise well, can be viewed at

The reform union's interaction with its community would be quite different than that of the business union. A reform union might seek to educate both its own members and community activists in ways of achieving its primary goal of radical socio-economic change. Such a union might also reject participation in even charitable efforts that are seen as propping up the status quo.

The business union, on the other hand, could take one of several approaches to community involvement. A business union, having implicitly accepted the socio-economic system within which it functions, might choose to actively support that system or compensate for systemic weaknesses through community development. A business union might engage in charitable and community work simply because it makes good business sense in terms of public relations. As an extreme, a business union might claim that its only function is to conduct labour relations in the workplace, and that the development of community or society is simply not part of its core function.

There is certainly reason to believe that the Canadian public would prefer that unions focus on their core functions. A 1999 Work Research Foundation poll asked respondents whether union dues should be used for "support of a political party or other non-union activities." A large majority (80 per cent) agreed that any such use of dues should be voluntary—presumably, that unions should not be able to use dues for such purposes without the dues-payer's permission. I will venture a guess, though, that the respondents were thinking of political parties, social issues, and interest groups when they answered the question. Would 80 per cent of respondents be opposed to the use of some union dues for charitable purposes—in support of the United Way, kids' soccer teams, or homeless shelters? Not likely.

I suggest that unions have significant responsibilities to communities and to society in addition to their labour relations function. This is not a license to give union dues to political parties, or to campaign on controversial moral issues such as abortion or gay marriage. But neither does it allow the business-only approach which entirely abdicates any social responsibility.

The well-being of society cannot be entrusted solely to governments, corporations, and private citizens. The concept of civil society suggests that there is a set of institutions—non-governmental organizations, such as trade unions, citizen associations, philanthropic organizations, volunteer groups, etc—that operate in the space between family, the business world, and the state (see ). These institutions are vital to the health of any democratic society. Trade unions, as stable, well-organized institutions with reasonable resources at their disposal, can play a significant role in civil society, at both the local (community) level and on a broader societal scale.

At the micro level, trade unions can and should make efforts to develop strong communities. This can happen through the variety of methods discussed above (and equally applicable to corporations), such as financial contributions to charitable causes, encouraging staff to volunteer, participation in community initiatives, and even by making their facilities and programs available to the community.

On a macro level, trade unions can contribute in a unique way to the building of civil society. This is not through participating in partisan politics or jumping on the bandwagon of one moral issue or another. It's by developing people-nurturing skills and leadership capabilities that are readily transferable to fields other than labour relations.

There are many situations where unions are indeed contributing to society on this broad level. The United Food and Commercial Workers sets up Migrant Workers' Centres, providing seasonal farm workers with health and safety information, English as a Second Language classes, income tax help, translation services when accessing medical care, and more. The Christian Labour Association of Canada provides both members and non-members with access to a wide variety of training courses, from computer use to first aid to fall protection.

In developing countries, the potential impact of the trade union on civil society may be even more significant. In many such countries, trade unions are teaching workers how to read and write, providing leadership training, informing individuals of legal rights and helping to assert them, and more. The impact of this form of people development goes well beyond the field of labour relations.

Trade unions may become involved in community and societal development for a variety of reasons. There is an element of self-interest: the union's members, and leaders, can benefit from healthy and vibrant communities. The often-tarnished image of labour can be polished through public good works.

But there's more to it than that. As institutional citizens, trade unions share some responsibility for the well-being and good functioning of communities and society. And labour organizations are uniquely positioned to make significant contributions in the realm of civil society.

Ed Bosveld
Ed Bosveld

At the time of these Comment contributions, Ed Bosveld was Ontario Provincial Director for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, an independent Canadian trade union representing more than 45,000 members. He served as part of the union's national management team as well as its provincial organzer and legal affairs coordinator.


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