Unions

Unions are essentially capitalist structures. In a union, the workers say to the managers, 'if you are going to treat our labour as a commodity, then we are going to demand the highest price for it. We're just capitalizing on the values that you yourselves espouse and follow.'

A union is a heirarchial structure, with a president, vice-president, and various levels of business representatives, researchers, PR people, and legal advisors. At the bottom of the heirarchy are the shop stewards, that is to say, representatives of the union who are active directly in the work place (you could call them union 'retailers' if you wished to push the metaphor). Oh, and the workers themselves, for whose interests the whole edifice is supposed to stand. The workers are all union members, but do not, for the most part, participate directly in the administration of the union's activities.

Decisions regarding collective agreements are made at the executive level, and then held up to the rank and file for ratification. If this sounds familiar, it is because union heirarchy is patterned after political heirarchy. Unions are corporatist to the extent that the workers are willing to remain passive and accept on faith that the union leaders 'know what's good for them.' If the union executive is allowed to grow fat and cynical, things can go very badly for the members. As a shop steward at one of the more offending unions, I was shocked and disillusioned to see the business rep making plans with the company's HR manager to discuss an 'item of business' on the back nine.

For all of this, though, unions are not without great value, especially in Canada, where the union movement entered the political arena and provided support for parties which represented the interests of workers, both union and nonunion. When a so-called labour party (like Canada's NDP) pushes government to pass and enforce workplace safety laws, raise minimum wages, enact a public health care system, etc., the benefits accrue to all workers, not just union members. While Canada's NDP has had few outright successes (and many recent spectacular failures), it has nonetheless managed, at times, to make government more responsible to its constituents. Compare America, whose unions remained apolitical and have suffered tremendous declines against the unchecked advances of big business over public policy. American unions have seldom looked past immediate issues, and have consequently largely passed into irrelevance. Union jobs now account for less than 15% of all non-farm, non-management jobs in America.

The question is, should unions measure their success by their market share? Douglas Dority, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International, wrote:

The wages and benefits you enjoy today would greatly be eroded if we weren't able to continually gain a larger unionized share in the labour market, especially amongst those workers employed by direct competitors of your employer. (UFCW Action. Jan/Feb/Mar 1997 Vol. XV No.1 p. 3)

Change a few words ('wages and benefits' to 'profits and dividends') and it could be a CEO addressing the board of directors - especially when you consider that the UFCW arranges a lot of its growth by absorbing smaller, independent unions into its fold, in a manner which a conglomerate on a buying spree would appreciate. Of course, there is a major between a union and a corporation. Unions, like governments, are somewhat responsive to their members (not just their owners). The key, as always, is participation. Unions with active memberships cannot get away with turning into self-gratifying behemoths. Corporations don't have to listen to their employees, and consequently seldom do so. But if a union meeting is packed with members, the executive cannot ignore the wishes of the rank and file. Members can also table resolutions, discuss and argue different points of view, and then vote on the final proposal. In this way, union members can help create union policy and not just ratify the proposals of their betters. But like everything else, this can only happen if people bother to show up. In a society where people are increasingly atomized and isolated from one another, this is becoming rare.

Unfortunately, this suggests that people are more credulous than we'd probably like to admit.

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Copyright © 2000, 2002 by Ryan McGreal