On Unions

 (This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, June 30, 2008, p. A9, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “Unions must adjust to today’s hard realities.”  The original article is slightly revised here.) 

 I once was a member of a union.  Thankfully, I am now semi-retired and no longer have to be a member of such an organization.  We didn’t call ourselves a union.  Instead we referred to ourselves as a professional association – the “Medicine Hat College Faculty Association,” which in turn was a member of the Alberta Colleges and Institutes Faculties Association.  

 The only problem was that we weren’t very professional and we spent very little of our time and money on professional activities.  Like all unions, we were there to get the best deal for ourselves – the best wages and working conditions for the least amount of work. 

 We weren’t even very successful at that. Our wages were low as professionals go, and because our workloads were so high, those of us who were conscientious felt badly about having to make compromises in teaching just so we could survive.   I for one took early retirement because of the stress of a heavy workload.

As you might expect, the failure of our union caused some of us to resent the frequent increases in dues needed to support the growing union bureaucracy, both at local and provincial levels.

One thing that a Westerner notices when moving to Ontario is that the union mentality is more entrenched here than on the prairies.  Even colleges and universities have “real” unions – at least they are honest.  There are strikes and picket lines.  Lengthy union negotiations or breakdowns in talks regularly make news headlines.  Buzz Hargrove (and now his replacement) keeps appearing in the news, especially since GM motors recently announced the upcoming closure of its Oshawa truck plant. 

But, there seems to be a problem.  There is plenty of evidence that both the market and the environment simply cannot sustain current levels of truck production.  It should have been clear long ago that truck production was not sustainable.  The present oil crisis wasn’t born yesterday.  Both GM and the CAW should have been sitting at the table years ago to craft a sustainable vision for the future.  This obviously didn’t occur, a fault shared equally by both GM and the CAW.

Lest the reader imagine that I am still an Albertan red-neck, let me assure you that I am anything but that.  I recognize the historical contributions of unions.  But I think there is a need to adjust to the hard realities of today. 

I am very much aware of the possibilities of worker exploitation.  In the case of GM workers, however, I would argue that they are suffering exploitation at the hands of both the CAW and GM.  Workers should have expected and received better treatment from both parties.  Similarly, Canadians should have expected more from their government than blindly subsidizing ill-planned auto-plants. 

I am also sensitive to the fact that power corrupts, especially consolidated economic power.  But the corrupting tendencies of power also apply to large unions.

I am as concerned as anyone about the dangers of global capitalism.   But I don’t hear Canadian union leaders expressing concern about their fellow workers in other countries where workers are indeed being exploited.

It is obvious that capitalism needs a conscience, a topic that I have written about previously.  But, the need for a conscience also applies to unions.

Maybe the answer is found here.  All of us need to work at developing more sensitive consciences.   We need to spend more time identifying and countering the selfishness and greed that exists in every one of us – and that includes the employer, and the worker, and the union leader.  We need to work at loving our neighbor as we love ourselves – and our neighbor includes the business manager, and the worker in the factory, as well as workers in distant lands.  We need to work at developing ways for management and workers to engage in more co-operative and constructive conversations with each other. 

We also need governments that ensure that both industries and unions think in terms of future realities rather than shaping themselves around short-term profits or high salaries. We need governments that are looking out for all citizens equally and for the long term.   We need citizens who are careful how they vote!

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