Robyn Benson, PSAC

The union future



Union yes.jpg


“If unions do not change, and quickly, we will steadily follow U.S. unions into continuing decline.” ~CEP-CAW merger discussion paper

The times are changing around us. Will unions erode in the flow, or adapt?

This long article is good food for thought. So is this one.

There’s a lot of content here, but a few things leaped out at me. First, tactics and strategies need to be new, alive, and precisely targeted. Secondly, the union needs to be a constant presence within its own membership. Finally, we public workers need to forge links with the public as a whole and win them over.

Let me start with the last point. Unionized workers are 31.5% of the total workforce. So we and our families are a pretty big chunk of that “public” whose interests the anti-union commentators and politicians are always going on about. We’re not only union members, but members of our communities, taxpayers, and voters.

This is why I have a little trouble with this kind of well-meaning comment:

To overcome … divide-and-conquer strategies, and defend against further attacks on the rights of public sector workers, unions will require new strategic thinking and modes of action. That means more effectively connecting the interests of public sector workers with those of citizens, by linking contract demands to the enhancement of the quality and availability of public services.


The labour movement is made up of citizens—a whole lot of citizens. Unionized workers in the public sector alone are nearly one-fifth of the entire Canadian workforce. Unwittingly, the authors of a basically pro-union article are contributing to the ongoing myth that we are somehow separate and apart from the people who use the services we provide. Guess what? We use them too.

We know very well from long experience that folks will get upset when they’re inconvenienced during strikes and lockouts—it’s only human. (By the way, a lockout is an employer move—but somehow the unions still get the blame for it.) When we can successfully make our case, especially when we put a human face on these misnamed “labour disputes”—what, are we arguing with ourselves?—public opinion can shift.

What is less easy to understand is that a lot of people cheer the axing of public workers while, at the same time, they get indignant when public services deteriorate. The obvious disconnect here is certainly one of the communications challenges we face.

How do we win over people who are inclined to be opposed to us? One way is by demonstrating that we have common cause with them, and forging strong alliances on that basis. A recent example is the campaign to keep Veterans Affairs offices open: our frontline members staff those offices, and are personally committed to the work they do, while the veterans appreciate the one-on-one attention they receive. Our campaign makes the necessary links between those workers, their services, and the veterans who depend on them.

Now, the recognition that our members are part of the public cuts both ways. Sometimes we fail to reach the very people who are the union that we have been elected to lead. Says Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti, “You have to be responsive to your members all the time. Otherwise, they just start looking at you like an insurance company.” As the author of the article quoting him notes, “No one feels particularly attached to their insurance company.”

Point well taken. We are not an insurance company. We are a union, made up, primarily, of rank and file members. It’s members who have won most of our big victories, with their energy, ideas and commitment. Improving the two-way flow of communications between the elected leadership at all levels and the members is a constant challenge in a large and diverse organization. And it’s not a challenge that we dare ignore.

Finally, tactics and strategy must always change to fit new circumstances. A stirling example was the 2006 strike at the Ekati diamond mine in the Northwest Territories. Here was a remote workplace where you couldn’t set up a picket line—you could only reach it most of the time on a company plane, and workers came in from all over. And the company could afford to wait out the strike: diamonds aren’t perishable goods. A year after organizing, the workers still didn’t have a collective agreement

But everything changed on June 13 when some creative thinking was brought to bear:

That’s the day the union ran ads in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal decrying Canada’s “dirty diamonds” and calling out BHP for using strikebreakers. It was a direct attack on one of the Canadian mine’s principal sales pitches: that its sparkly products were untainted by human-rights abuses associated with diamonds from Africa. The phone started ringing from around the world. Media from Antwerp, Israel, South Africa and Singapore—“everywhere where somebody cares about diamonds”—were calling for interviews, Thompson says. “We had an agreement in two weeks.”


While we’re at it, let’s put another myth to rest—that the Canadian labour movement, like the US one, is “in decline.” Over the past five years we’ve added many, many thousands of members from Canada’s universities and colleges. Unionization in both the public and the private sectors has steadily risen.

The demand for unionization is growing, as one might expect it to do in a climate of precarious work, high unemployment, government austerity measures and increasingly inadequate pensions. Says one young organizer, sidetracked into union activism on his way to law school, “We need good jobs you can build a life on.”

And if we greet new ideas with an open mind, emphasize effective communications, and refuse to allow ourselves to be divided against each other, our unions will be an increasingly effective force for getting and keeping them. We’ll get the future that we deserve, one we have made with our own hands.


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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on October 8, 2013 8:30 AM.

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