Tuesday, 27 November 2012

We Have a lot to Thank Unions For

Over the years unions have been subject to a great deal of negative press. A campaign has been waged against unions to undermine the importance of concerted organization. Unions have been accused of being irrelevant in today’s labour market, of harming employers and damaging the economy. Of course, none of these accusations can withstand more than a modicum of scrutiny. This will be discussed in future posts, but for the moment we thought it would be appropriate to remind people that we all have a lot to thank unions for. Below are but some of the myriad benefits the labour movement has brought to all workers, unionized or not.

Lower Hourly Work-Day


The Nine-Hour Movement was an international workers' effort to secure shorter working days. Beginning in Hamilton in 1872, the demand for the 9-hour day spread to other cities and provinces. The Nine-Hour Movement marked the first time Canadian labour organized. Out of this Movement came a unified protest, tactics of resistance, and persuasive “working-class” leaders. The Nine-Hour Movement united union and non-union workers.

Though the Nine-Hour Movement ultimately failed to achieve its ends, it was not a complete failure. The Movement represented a crucial beginning in the recognition of the labour community’s capacity for self-governance. Immediately after the 1872 Movement, working-class activists won major concessions, such as the passage of laws strengthening workers' bargaining position with employers.[1] Laws were passed to legalize unionization, and Canada was also made one of the first countries in the world to limit the work-day.

It could be argued that at least partially based on the impression and awareness of the common interests of the labour community raised by the Nine-Hour Movement, Canada ratified the International Labour Organization Convention of 1919. The Convention secured a 48-hour work week for all Canadian workers, with some limited exceptions.

Labour Day

After Unionization was legalized, the protests of 1872 became an annual event. After the U.S. also adopted the annual event, it became known as “Labour Day”[2]. 

The "Union Threat Effect"

It’s common knowledge that unionization and collective bargaining has a positive impact on workers’ wages, but it’s less commonly known that unionization also has many positive impacts on wages for non-union workers.

In industries and/or occupations where most of the workplaces are unionized, there is often a spillover benefit to non-union workers from the accomplishments unionized workers have fought to attain. To forestall unionization, employers of non-unionized workers often meet union standards or, at least, improve the compensation they provide and labour practices they follow beyond what they would have otherwise provided if there had been no union presence. This is sometimes called the “union threat effect.”[3]

Leading by Example

A non-union employer does not always need a threat hanging over them in order for working conditions to improve for all workers. Through union efforts workplace norms and practices have been established that have become standard throughout the economy. Working conditions and wages have been improved for the whole workforce. Union wage-setting have set wage standards that all workers have come to expect from employers.

Numerous benefits, not least of which those for pension and health care, were first attained in the union sector. These benefits then became more standardized so that we now frequently see non-union workers enjoying these benefits. The grievance procedures used by unions, which afford due process in the workplace, have often been imitated in non-union workplaces. This provides all workers with greater workplace rights, protections and job security.

Note: We would like to thank and credit the Progressive Rambler blogspot for the picture.

Monday, 26 November 2012

The Use of Creative Organization

There’s a lot of talk these days about “creative destruction”, where old markets are destroyed for the sake of the new.  The theory holds that entrepreneurial innovation leads to long-term economic growth even if, in the short-term, the economic value of established enterprises is destroyed[1].

There are instances where the theory holds true, i.e. the development of MP3 players (e.g. the IPod) virtually destroyed the portable CD player market.  The effect of creative destruction on unions, however, has been far less benign.   

Entrepreneurial innovations can lead to perceived redundancies in the labour market, which “creates” weakened unions and shrinks the middle class.  While creative destruction is often presented as a basic fact of capitalism that can’t be resisted, some unions are proving that creative organization can provide a counterbalance to the forces of creative destruction.

We would like to share a creative approach to organizing that was recently used. Some non-union workers became concerned for their futures after their company was sold to a European group.  Workers sought the support of a union, but feared they would suffer reprisals from the employer.  These concerns were not unwarranted.  Years earlier the workers had tried to organize but the employer had retaliated, firing some of the organizers.  Naturally, the workers were afraid to talk amongst themselves on the floor.  The situation didn’t look good.

Instead of giving up, however, organizers got creative.  They set up a special blog, a place where the workers could discuss, debate, share concerns and strategize, free from any employer coercion or union-busting tactics.  The blog discussion amongst the workers was completely anonymous, so there was no one the employer could pressure.  In part due to the freedom this blog provided, the workers were able to organize, join the union and protect themselves.
We applaud the organizers for their creativity and courage in the face of union-busting and job insecurity.  The workers have gained new respect.  They have gained job security.  They have taken steps to ensure they can continue to provide for themselves and their loved ones.  They have answered creative destruction with creative organization