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Love-hate with unions is much more the latter

You can thank the labour movement, and unions in particular, for many of the employee benefits we enjoy today, including a five-day workweek, holidays, vacation time, benefits, pension, and safety measures. But that was then, and this is now, when unions have outlived their usefulness … at least according to conventional (aka barstool) wisdom.

There’s nothing like talk of a public sector strike to cause a jump in the collective blood pressure, as witnessed by the goings-on at Air Canada (though technically a private corporation) and, earlier this year, at Canada Post.

While we owe much to the early days of organized labour, today unions are often seen as a stumbling block – see the auto industry – or a drain on taxpayers – see any and all government employees.

Reading through some comments about the history of unions, I came across this posting (anonymous, of course): “Labor unions have no place in 21st century. High school dropout rednecks don’t deserve jobs that pay $25 an hour with health, dental and pensions.”

In essence, many of us are unhappy that people of less talent and worth – a completely subjective measure – are making more money than we are – a verifiable fact, as wage levels are published, sometimes with relish as in the case of Ontario’s sunshine list.

We’d happily see unions disbanded, wages slashed, benefits eliminated and employees let go. That goes double, triple or a hundred times in the case of government workers.

The problem is, we’ve already seen where this beggar-thy-neighbour philosophy leads: a race to the bottom fueled by corporations that have exported jobs to overseas hellholes such as China, outsourcing and other tricks in the globalization playbook.

Although the Occupy Wall Street and related movements are affixing the blame where it belongs, anti-union sentiment runs strong in many circles. As rates of unionism fall, especially in the private sector, expect more of us to forget the roots of the labour movement, fuelling even more antagonism.

There are two polarized views about unions and their impact on the economy. On the one hand, some argue the postwar boom was going to happen no matter what, and that increasingly greedy union demands eventually smothered the North American economy and forced manufacturing offshore. The other side sees unions leading to fair wages and a growing middle class, fueling the well-documented postwar expansion. As corporatism and right-wing politics attacked workers and the middle class, only then did the economy founder.

The unions can certainly shoulder some of the blame for the poor public image, however, says a University of Waterloo economics professor who specializes in labour issues.

Instead of benefitting those workers with the lowest wages and poorest working conditions, today unions focus on professionals who already have good jobs. That’s especially true in the public sector, says Mikal Skuterud.

“Historically they organized the lowest-paid people in the workplace, driving up wages.

Today, they’re organizing the people who are already relatively affluent.”

The likes of autoworkers, Air Canada employees and government workers enjoy higher-than-average wages, along with benefits and pensions increasingly rare in the private sector, which leaves other workers with grievances of their own whenever there’s news of labour unrest among those who should be satisfied with their lot.

“It’s kind of hard to be sympathetic,” says Skuterud. “It’s pretty clear why those [anti-union] sentiments have been developing.”

Massive job losses in the manufacturing sector, the largest victim of globalization, have taken a toll on private-sector unions in North America. From representing more than a third of workers in the U.S. during the 1950s, unions now include less than eight per cent of private sector employees today.

In Canada, the decline has been less pronounced, falling to about 30 per cent by 2005, from almost 40 per cent two decades earlier. Blue collar workers experienced the largest declines in union membership, consistent with falling numbers in the goods-producing and distribution sectors, Statistics Canada reports.

When it comes to unionization, age plays a big role. Younger workers, particularly those under 35, experienced more pronounced declines in union membership than older workers.

The movement has responded by concentrating on professional services, especially the public sector. That necessarily excludes the growing part of the service sector, the
so-called McJobs in the retail, childcare and hospitality industries.

These are the people who would most benefit from unionization, says Skuterud, but they’re precisely the ones being ignored.

That’s mostly a pragmatic issue, he adds, noting it’s very difficult and expensive to organize in those sectors.

In the heyday of unions, employers were large and workers were easy to organize in one drive. Today, those big manufacturers are fewer and farther between. Unions require a greater effort to approach multiple small workplaces. And the sectors that could use the most help tend to have higher turnovers, making it more difficult to organize.

It’s no surprise then, he notes, that Walmart has been a target in the retail industry: it’s big and has attracted a fair bit of attention for its employment practices. It has, however, been very successful at avoiding unionization, in some cases closing stores to avoid dealing with unions (see the case of Jonquière, Quebec, for instance).

So, what does the future hold for unions? Not much, despite stabilizing numbers since dramatic drops in the 1980s and ‘90s. Other factors – immigration, education polices, outsourcing, trade agreements – now have a much larger impact on the labour market than do unions.

“Almost certainly what has happened is that there’s been an internationalization in the labour market that has undermined unions.

“Looking to the horizon, nothing’s improving for the union movement.”

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