The New Unionism: Empowering Workers
The New Unionism: Empowering Workers

The New Unionism: Empowering Workers

March 1 st 1998
[We] are entering into a new industrial arena, that of enterprise development. More and more people are coming to appreciate that workers really are an asset, that we need to be concerned about training and worker involvement in decision-making processes. . . . We are starting to move away from Taylorist models, which divided work into its simplest constituent parts. In the new models, workers' brains are valued and used. That is essential for the workplace of the next century—or the workplace of today, for that matter.
—Lynn Williams, former president of the United Steeelworkers of America (Harvard Business Review, July/August 1993)

Unions are on the decline. Should we be celebrating? While some may view union decline as a necessary step toward increased economic prosperity (a very debatable proposition to be sure), there are consequences that too often are overlooked in public debate.

The most commonly heard argument for why we need unions is usually couched in historic terms. Many of us have heard statements like, "Unions played an important part in setting basic employment standards, such as minimum wage and health and safety legislation." However, the disclaimer—"But today they have too much power"—usually follows.

A 1997 Angus-Reid poll, commissioned by the WRF, showed that while 57 per cent of Canadians approved of unions, 75 - 90 per cent disapproved of specific mainstream union practices, such as compulsory membership, mandatory dues, and an adversarial representation style. The overall level of support for unions has remained relatively unchanged since the sixties. But the data suggests that Canadians are looking for a different kind of unionism than is generally being offered them.</.p>

Forcing change

They may get their wish. The converging trends of globalization and changing industrial relations practices, not to mention the changing character of the employee-employer relationship, is forcing unions to change. While the pace of change and the manner it is being embraced (or resisted) varies widely among unions (and even between locals of the same union), it is clear that we are on the verge of a new type of unionism. And unions that ignore the new realities of the workplace will indeed become irrelevant.

So what will this new unionism look like? One of its distinguishing features will certainly be a very different attitude toward facilitating worker participation in productivity and quality enhancement programs.

The old unionism was defined in part as a response to Taylorist management philosophies. Management was to do the thinking, make the decisions, and divvy up the work into small simple jobs that could be easily learned. Workers were to show up, shut up, speed up. Too much thinking messed up the process. Assembly lines are not the place for innovation.

Adversarial labour relations are an almost natural by-product of this arrangement. Thus, when management woke up and decided to involve workers in the decision-making process, with TQM-type (total quality management) initiatives, union resistance was a natural reaction.

Voluntary participation in a management initiative was seen as sharing information with the enemy and doing management's job for them. The workplace was about collecting a paycheque, and workers knew that it was the union that exercised the clout necessary to maximize their economic rewards.

In the last decade, this has changed dramatically. Today, one can attend all sorts of conferences in which management and labour representatives share their experiences on how crisis forced them to abandon this type of adversarialism. Lynn Williams, quoted at the beginning of this article, is a good example. He suggests that worker participation is a necessary part of modern industry.

Nonunion representation

Some concede that structures of worker representation are required to facilitate worker input, but they suggest that this can happen without unions, through workplace committees or employee associations. They cite prominent examples, such as Dofasco Steel and Imperial Oil.

But the evidence is quite clear that in any workplace, it is impossible to obtain meaningful worker input on issues relating to productivity or quality without also involving the employees in a similar process dealing with labour relations issues.

In the United States, a controversial National Labour Relations Board decision in 1992, known as the Electromation case, effectively made many of these nonunion forms of representation illegal. In the wake of this decision, legislation was drawn up under the title Teamwork for Employees and Management Act (TEAM Act), but it was vetoed by President Clinton in 1996. The arguments against the TEAM Act boil down to the fact that these nonunion forms of representation end up as a management-controlled tool and a shield against unions.

Advocates of this model frequently point to Europe and its works councils as an argument for effective workplace representation structures at the company level. What they fail to acknowledge is that with the European works council also comes worker representation on company boards and sectoral negotiations with unions, which sets industry standards for labour that all competing firms abide by.

Quite apart from the legality of these structures, there is also the matter of utility. Although some success stories can be cited, the evidence shows that nonunion forms or representation ultimately fail when the tough times come. Sidney Rubenstein, a Princeton consultant who has studied these arrangements since the fifties, estimates that over 80 per cent fail. The reason, he suggests, is that they lack the institutional continuity provided by a union acting on behalf of employees at the workplace level. Consequently, such councils are not able to successfully develop the enthusiastic and committed worker leadership that is integral to the success of such initiatives.

Accepting the argument that globalization requires North American business to provide more participatory roles for workers in order to compete implies that independent institutions representing workers—labour unions—are necessary. Ultimately, the test is whether or not a worker can, without fear of consequence, honestly answer either "yes" or "no" to any question. For a worker's "yes" to have any meaning in a participation program, he needs the legal protection and collective clout that only a union can bring to say no.

The transformation to a unionism that facilitates worker involvement will not be easy. The challenges are immense. However, although principled reasoning that workers should be involved in workplace decision-making hasn't entered the discussion, pragmatic concerns are forcing change. Evidence at the local level is that attitudes and practices are changing at a significant pace. And the rhetoric from some union leaders suggest they are beginning to catch on.

Facilitating worker participation

But the biggest mistake would be to conclude this is a task only for union leaders. Unions are a vital social institution without which social inequities and unrest is inevitable. But for unions to successfully adapt to the new tasks required of them, the attitude of management toward them is also crucial.

It is curious that in the European model, which many North American employers try to mimic, companies operate in a legal framework that gives the workers' council the right to information, the right to consultation in economic and financial matters, and the right of consent in social and personnel affairs. Not too many North American managements advocating for these models are eager to provide this sort of information.

No one doubts that the future will look very different than the past, and those differences apply to unions as much as to management. Facilitating worker participation will become a crucial part of the union's task in the workplace. Union leaders need to come to grips with that role, and learn how to balance these pressures with their other tasks and the inherently political position they hold vis-a-vis their members.

Management, too, must come to grips with the fact that they need a responsible union if they are to put any meaning to the slogan, "Our people are our most valuable resource." A worker's "yes" only means something when a "no" can be freely given and received.

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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