Thursday, December 26, 2013

Solidarity Forever?

These days, so many right-wing governments are making attempts to take power away from unions, supposedly to save money and give businesses more flexibility in difficult economic climates.  While the political right has never been greatly interested in the rights of workers or the strengthening of the lower middle class, it is interesting that the idea that unions need to be curbed is getting more traction in the general public - even among those who are not wealthy themselves.  Are people simply more gullible or has something actually changed either in society or in the way unions function?  And are unions still important or relevant in today’s society?

Before we get into this, there is an additional matter where I suppose I should have to tread carefully.  I am currently working full time and my workplace is not unionized.  I want to make it clear from the start that anything I say about the benefits of having unions or exploitation at non-union workplaces has nothing to do with my own experiences, as I actually have a very responsible employer that treats employees very well.

Back to the questions, I would actually answer “yes” to every part of those questions.  While I don’t really think people have become stupider or more naive, the news sources upon which people rely have become more partisan and less honest.  Of course the prime example is Fox News.  They have a ridiculously obvious political agenda that influences every thing they broadcast and for some reason some people still trust them as a news source.  How else does one explain that a majority of people claim to be against ObamaCare but are in favour of everything it does?  So in this environment, if a broadcaster such as Fox News says that unions are destroying America people seem to believe them.  Now, they may claim that while their opinion and commentary shows may have a particular political viewpoint, their news is still fair and unbiased as all journalism is supposed to be.  But any serious media watcher will see that the choices of what to cover and the language used in the coverage are clearly designed so that the viewer will draw a particular conclusion.  And that is even more dangerous since the viewer will be more likely to believe the news to be trustworthy and unbiased.  So a news story about a union dispute that puts all the focus on increasing demands from the union against financial hardship of the company may be a very selective reading of the situation but will draw a viewer to an inevitable conclusion of who is right and who is wrong.  This is incredibly dangerous for the credibility of the news and journalism, but that is another topic in its own right.

To the next question, has society and/or unions changed? I believe it has, but that may simply be a matter of time and short memories.  But I think an important factor is the virtual disappearance of employee loyalty to a company.  It used to be a person would work with the same company from graduation until retirement.  During that time they would receive a series of promotions and a secure pension on retirement (often owing much to union involvement).  In exchange for all that expense, the employer would have exclusive access to the skills of that employee.  Now jobs are far more transient.  An additional side effect of this is that very few companies want to put significant time and money into training, especially since those precious resources they invested in will in all likelihood leave in a few years and join their competitor.  There is so much more to this issue, but this will get me too far off track.

Have unions changed?  Once again, yes.  Unions began due to concerns for worker safety and basic compensation and human rights.  Horrific industrial accidents in overcrowded factories were commonplace in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, generating public desire for an organized labour movement.  With the factory collapse in Bangladesh earlier this year, we see this very scenario at work 100 years later in the developing world, that now seems to do all the manual labour for those of us in the west (and that is where all the union jobs went).  It was very hard to get unions going, almost everyone involved was accused of being communist (not that many in the labour movement weren’t in fact communists) and violence and intimidation were incredibly common tactics to discourage unionization.  And about the presence of Communists, a lot of that can be attributed to the intimidation and use of force weeding out all the moderate labour organizers leaving only radicals, many of whom were communists.  But once unions became a reality, things did change a bit.  To safeguard the gains that were so hard-fought, union leadership sought control of the political process, to make sure they had a government champion just like the employers.  By the time a large proportion of workers were unionized, the biggest unions had tremendous amounts of money from union dues.  Of course these are needed in case of large, extended strikes which would need a war chest, but when the reserves get so large, it attracts the interest of big greed, and, more problematically, organized crime.  Even without this issue, there are additional reasons unions have been associated with greed when their initial purpose was to stand up against greed.  It likely again comes down to substantial union dues that are collected as unions merge and become larger.  You now have union presidents and other executives within unions that are extremely rich individuals.  Some even become involved, like executives in other fields, in corruption and greed.  This gives the impression that unions are no longer true to their original purpose.  Furthermore, the “unions” that represent professional athletes that make millions going on strike to get more money from billionaire owners hardly generates sympathy or support for the union movement as a whole.

But now to the final question:  are unions still relevant or useful?  Absolutely.  And this does not only apply if you ascribe to socialist ideals about even distribution of wealth as the benefits of unions are not limited to increased compensation for the working class.  And there are benefits even to those workers who do not work in a unionized environment.  That is because one of the great successes of the labour movement was, as I mentioned above, more progressive and humane labour laws and increased regulation related to worker rights and safety.  After disasters like factory collapses, there have historically been increased demands for union representation, so if there are company-wide issues, a worker can have a group that represents every employee make the complaint, rather than raise it individually at risk of their job.  Often union-based campaigns for better condition extend beyond the immediate company in the form of legislation that affects other workers as well, whether unionized or not.  And of course if a large segment of an industry is unionized and thus likely receiving higher pay, competition will likely push non-union wages higher as well.

Also, when employees have better benefits and working conditions, they are likely to be happier and, as a result, become more productive generating more income for the organization.  Now good employee morale and resulting high productivity can occur outside of a union environment, but such a situation is out of the control of the worker;  the conditions of work are entirely dependent on the goodwill (or lack thereof) of management.  Good management will create a strong company where people are paid well, have benefits and have good morale without needing a union.  An example of such a company is Canada’s second airline, WestJet, where the employees are not unionized.  Instead, all employees receive shares in the company and thus are all part owners.  In contrast, their competition, Air Canada – which was once the national airline – has mainly unionized workers and there has been one labour dispute after another and morale is generally understood to be somewhat lower.  Yet there is little discontent at WestJet.  Another strong, though smaller, non-union company, is the one I work for.  They really seem to care about employees, the benefits are certainly acceptable, and there are opportunities for advancement.  However, in another situation workers may be exploited at every turn if a union is not behind them.  Usually this scenario does not create a strong company, but they can still be successful based on factors other than their workforce.  Walmart is the prime example.  Their mistreatment of workers is legendary by now, yet the company is a remarkable success, mainly due to their supply chain and the low prices they can offer as a result.  I have so many issues with Walmart it could fill another full post (maybe I’ll write it) but in terms of labour, this would seem like a situation where only a strong union could improve things, since management is not inclined to provide anything not required by law (and even then sometimes not).  Also their workforce is so large that only a single organized unit could be an effective influence on the company to actually provide any more to their employees.  If a few workers at a few stores (or even all of one store) were to walk off the job, they could easily be replaced.  But if all of them act together as one, that might bring some concessions.

So where are we?  It seems, unfortunately, that we may almost be back to where we started in some industries, where there is great hostility to unions but a great need out there, due to poor working conditions.  To make matters worse, the unions that are established have in many cases apparently lost touch with their overriding purpose and seem more interested in consolidating power, both financial and political.  Also, as unions have traditionally used seniority as their guiding principle instead of merit, many employers – and workers – see a union workplace as one where inertia and incompetence are rewarded.  When unions get large, the bureaucracy also increases, leaving a situation where some workers feel they can get more effective results by approaching the employer directly than by going through the union, especially since some may actually see the employer as more understanding and responsive than the union!  Clearly something has gone wrong in this scenario – the whole point of a union was supposed to be to look out for the needs of the workers.  When the union is no longer doing that, their perceived usefulness is severely limited.  Even worse, this disinterest in union representation can play right into the hands of greedy business operators who can convince their employees that they don’t want a union and then proceed to cut away pay, benefits, and opportunities to air grievances.

Obviously something needs to be done, but what?  Regular readers of my blog should know by now that I’m not one that provides that many answers.  I blog about topics where I have questions myself, so it is a bit much to assume that I can also provide answers to the questions in my own mind!  What I might suggest is that unionization really does need to come back, but I think it has to be a rethought and renewed movement that takes into consideration the priorities and values of modern workers, and also is able to adapt to the present day economy, where there is less manufacturing and more service-type employment.  The trend of more temporary and contract work should also be addressed, perhaps as a union dedicated to those workers or as a force trying to reverse the trend.  Again, I don’t really have answers and even the suggestions are very general and not fully formed, but this is a complex issue.  What do you all think about this?

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