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International Trade: Unionism

June 16, 2010 - Ray Pennings

Two major problems face any North American conversation about trade unions. First, the very topic of unions is framed in particular ways in the North American mindset and evokes one of three responses. Some have very little time or use for unions, seeing them as limiting the free choice of workers in the marketplace to protect their own turf, protectors of the status quo that smother innovation and pull down productivity. A second subset of the population has quite an opposite perspective: Unions are necessary defenders of workers’ rights and interests in a corporatist marketplace and provide necessary protection and voice for the interests of workers—not only in the workplace, but also in public dialogue and debate. This group believes that unions are essential democratic institutions that deserve protection and promotion.

And of course, there is a third perspective somewhere in the middle. Typically, polls about unions indicate that Canadians support the institution of unionism, but not many of its practices. Those in the middle react negatively to critiques of unions, even though they themselves choose not to join one. Unions seem like insurance: a necessary vehicle of protection for workers in unpleasant and difficult situations, but not one that plays a significant a role in their daily life.

Such a threefold categorization does not capture every nuance, but it reflects an important correlation: the three different political outlooks associated with each view and the very different understanding of the nature of the institution that these reflect. The first category—that which might be described as “anti-union”—tends to work from libertarian assumptions about the functioning of the marketplace and frames economic participation, whether that be as consumers, entrepreneurs, or workers as primarily an individual activity. The second category—which might be described as “pro-union”—tends to view unions as democratic institutions, operating within a framework of state sanction and protection, with the task of ensuring that “rights” are protected in the course of economic activity. The third group advocates the insurance view, which is largely remedial in character.

My point here is not to mediate the differences between these commonly held perspectives but to point out that none of them understand the place and task of a trade union as an inherently economic institution. I want to suggest that the North American understanding of trade unions, common to both its critics and advocates, falls short because we do not think of this institution as an economic institution whose potential can be realized by aligning itself around economic norms and objectives. Instead, we deal with trade unions, depending on our perspective, as either political organizations concerned with rights protection or social institutions dealing with distributive issues.

The second problem that a conversation about trade unions faces is that the North American labour movement is militantly secular in its philosophy and approach. But the history of North American trade unionism is connected to social gospel influences of the early twentieth century. The continued existence of trade unions with an explicitly religious base, such as the more Catholically inspired 300,000 member Centrale des syndicats democratiques (CSD) in Quebec or the Protestant inspired 50,000 member Christian Labour Association of Canada are clearly important factors that deserve consideration.

Still, these explicitly religious unions are exceptions rather than the rule in North America. The history of North American unionism is primarily a secular history driven by political ideas and expressed in the currency of power, not morality. Religiously-formed ideals relating to vocation and justice, which were part of the religiously inspired labour movements, have largely dissolved within the North American labour context.

This disappearance occurred quite early in the history of labour unions. The ecumenical social service congress held in Ottawa in 1914, attended by both church and labour leaders, remained primarily a middle-class phenomenon. The radicalism expressed during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 brought to light divisions in both the church and labour movement. Although some churches—most notably the United Church of Canada—continued to work towards ecclesiastical and labour cooperation, the terms of engagement were decidedly political. In a Fellowship for Christian Social Order 1936 publication, Eugene Forsey argued that until “Christians learn to understand and apply the lessons of Marxism they cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Neither the politics nor the theology of this movement proved to have broad-based inspirational appeal. And so, the labour movement in Canada morphed into a middle class interest group which became adept at working within scientific management programs to protect workers. This became embedded in public policy, as virtually every Canadian jurisdiction introduced labour legislation in the forties modeled after the adversarial premises of the American 1935 Wagner Act. Labour law primarily establishes the “rules of engagement” for industrial conflict.

However, we can—and ought—to creatively rethink the nature and task of trade unionism in North America and around the globe. Three interventions in this conversation can help in that task.

First, to adequately address questions of globalization and internationalism, we must recover the ability to have public conversations using moral language and categories. One of the challenges the labour movement has faced because of globalization is a lack of the moral language and categories to engage the discussion. It is relatively easy to throw around high-minded terms like “solidarity,” “social justice,” and “respect and dignity of workers”; however, in order to give those terms concrete substance that can inform action, we must have a common framework for discussion. The immediate challenges in entering this discussion—particularly for labour organizations—are obvious.

How does one reconcile free trade policies that will unarguably improve the living conditions of many in developing countries with the implication: the end of certain well-paying jobs in North America? When we deal with the wide-ranging conditions in various countries—some of which are obviously negatively impacted by decisions made locally—how do we set priorities? Do we consider every circumstance equally, with moral equivalency, regardless of how we have arrived at those circumstances?

The North American labour movement is ill equipped to address these questions. Wanting the achievement of certain “moral” ideals in the absence of a moral framework within which to make sense of these ideals and establish priorities amounts to shallow good wishes.

Second, we need a common understanding of unions as economic institutions governed by the norm of stewardship. I already noted how union advocates in North America tend to defend unions in the context of rights. This places them as extensions of the political sphere—which in practice they are, since they primarily rely on the state sanction for their exercise of influence. Those opposed to this argue that unions represent interference in the free markets (essentially the libertarian argument for the limited state). Now lest I be misinterpreted, labour does have an appropriate role to exercise in each of these spheres; however, unions primarily operate in the economic sphere. They ought not be first about rights, redistribution, or social support. They are about stewarding human capital, ensuring that its potential is realized and a fair return on investment is provided.

Unions have an opportunity to identify and cultivate the potential of the workforce (individually and collectively), to work with other social players to find the “social place” in which workers can carry out their vocation effectively, and to ensure that workers are fairly treated, receiving just compensation for their contribution and sharing in the rewards of their investment. Our frame of reference is important. If we view unions as economic institutions tasked with the responsibility to cultivate and steward the potential of the workforce, we must deal with workers in the context of their contribution.

The third problem for those in conversation about unions is that in the global economy, the task is global, and the labour movement needs to organize itself in different ways, with a global worldview. North American unions, in particular, rely too heavily on a rights-based approach to labour relations and on the tools of industrial conflict to play the power game. But moral authority is derived from the contribution unions make that goes beyond the enforcement of their rights and the advancement of their self-interest. Moral authority is the kind of basis that fledgling legal regimes need to spark reform, and it is this kind of reform that is critical outside of the North American context. Legalist-minded internationalists might be cynical about weak moralism’s ability to change behaviour, but culture precedes politics, and mass mobilization of what is morally right precedes legal and political reform.
Labour unions are endowed, both morally and legally, to draw those connections outside the developed world. International unionism needs new moments of global innovation if it hopes to transcend its narrow interest group-based work in the developed north, and penetrate into the more difficult, morally ambiguous climate of the rest. Three steps may help in this task.

First, international credibility will come from consistent domestic policy. Again, unions are economic institutions designed to steward the human capital. Developing programs that assist workers in identifying their gifts and creating opportunity for that potential to be productively engaged in the economy—starting at home—is a place to start. Rather than remaining a conservative institution, defending the status quo and resisting change, unions need to become agents of innovation and creators of opportunity. Additionally, when unions deal with workers abroad, they must start from the premise that these are workers who deserve opportunity to utilize their talents, and work to find ways and social space to build on these talents.

Second, labour unions in North America have developed a business model which has resulted in a primary focus on membership services, delivered through the collective bargaining process. Although unions have dedicated significant sums to organizing campaigns in new sectors and certain other programs of aid, the animating character of North American unionism is the collective bargaining process itself. If unions are going to become significant agents of in a globalized economy, they need to focus beyond their membership.

Finally, moral authority and political credibility for international unionism will come from cultivating and celebrating the value of work. When a worker has a pride in craftsmanship and the satisfaction of being able to do meaningful work and make a real contribution, the power and purpose of unionism can be leveraged into political and moral mandates. Only after work is given moral currency are we positioned to better ensure it receives appropriate economic rewards.

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This Article Belongs To ...

  1. June 2010: Work and Love in the Global Village
    CPIP - Work and Love in the Global Village

    In this issue of CPiP we look at the peril and promise of international trade unionism, in Canada and beyond. This issue was produced in cooperation with Regent College's Marketplace Institute and its features come out of our joint spring 2010 conference, God and the Global Economy.

    Download the PDF.