Sunday, 18 August 2013

Taking the Offensive Position

Does size matter? This simple question has long been the subject of thought, debate and considerable anxiety. The Canadian Auto Workers Unions (CAW) and the Communication Energy and Paper Workers Union of Canada (CEP) have recently waded into the debate and have bet heavily that it does in fact matter.

In a much publicized development, the CAW and the CEP will merge to form a new union to be named Unifor. The new union will be national and massive, representing roughly 300,000 members across 20 different economic sectors[1]. The merger will swell union membership and create the largest private sector union in the country. But Unifor’s scope will not be limited to the private sector – the union will also represent many workers from the public sector, including workers in the health, transit and education sectors[2].   

Why the merger makes sense

As we all know, recent decades have seen organized labour besieged by any number of negative influences, from government interference with the collective bargaining process, to the introduction of anti-union legislation like Bill C-377, to a public that is increasingly convinced unions have outlived their usefulness. This has all quite naturally kept unions on their heels. As Ken Lewenza, president of the CAW notes: “we have certainly been on defence.”[3] But there’s a chance that Unifor will allow unions to go on the offence, and this merger may just be a major step toward turning the tide for organized workers.

Jerry Dias has been endorsed to become president of Unifor by both Lewenza and Dave Coles, president of the CEP. Dias is an experienced CAW leader. He argues that the merger will better prepare the union to push back against anti-union government policies and corporations that would seek to diminish the power of workers to demand decent wages and working conditions through organization.

The math is simple: the more members, the larger the unions’ voice and ability to defend the rights of workers all across the country. The potential this merger brings is not lost on Mr. Dias, who has stated: “our combined efforts between the two unions are to make a bold statement that we’re going to fight to maintain the middle class.”[4] Indeed, politicians at several levels of government have so obviously redirected their support away from organized labour that some believe this merger is necessary if many Canadians are to have a fighting chance at decent wages and a middle-class lifestyle.


But the flipside is also worth considering. Though there may be numerous and compelling reasons that justify the creation of Unifor, it would be na├»ve to think that size alone will solve the woes afflicting today’s labour movement. Size means very little if it doesn’t come with fresh ideas and a well-defined strategy for tackling the issues of the day. Unifor does have ideas, but it’s too early to tell whether these ideas are sufficiently innovative to permit Unifor to fully capitalize on its numbers. A certain focus on the “new” seems to underlie the creation of Unifor. The union will stress “generational change”, encouraging union leaders to voluntarily retire at age 65 or earlier in order to make room for fresh blood and fresh ideas[5].

Further, in addition to representing its 300,000 members, the new union will reach out and bring unorganized workers into the fold. Unifor intends to organize workplaces and recruit new members, improving the lives of more Canadians and stimulating the economy through a stronger and broader middle class with more disposable income. Comittees will be established to respond to the needs of different groups within the union and councils for the different industry groups under the Unifor umbrella will be formed. All of the groups will meet at least once per year to ensure the union continues to harmonize its interests[6]. The new union is also said to be in the process of designing a mechanism to permit groups as diverse as students, the unemployed and others on the margins of the economy to join Unifor.

Is bigger really better?

But, of course, greater size must not be confused with superior service. It’s important that Unifor develop a plan to ensure the needs of its members are not sacrificed in the interests of expanding size. A large union can have many benefits, but those benefits can be eclipsed if members feel a sense of distance from their own union. A mega-union, for instance, may be in danger of becoming such a large institutional body that it forgets the spirit of the underdog and becomes mired in bureaucratic considerations. If Unifor is to truly be a success, it must never begin to regard its members as mere numbers.

Unifor must move forward with a continued focus on serving the needs of its members. The quality of such service is one of the tests of a successful union. Unions of smaller size have proven time and again that they are capable of diligently and effectively representing the needs of their members. Only if Unifor can show that it is likewise capable will it be able to claim it is a success. The Committees appear to be an effort to address this issue, but it remains to be seen whether they will adequately respond to the needs of members.

That being said, Unifor does open up exciting possibilities for Canadian workers. This merger is unprecedented in the scope of its membership and could yield far-reaching benefits for the whole country. As reported in an earlier post, students and people under 30 years of age strongly favour unions. That group alone could increase union membership and strengthen support for organized labour for decades to come, revitalizing the labour movement.

The results of these efforts won’t be apparent for years to come, but Unifor could very well signal a renewal of labour support in this country. At the very least, it’s a bold attempt to alter the unenviable position unions have found themselves in over these years. Unifor will change the status quo. All anyone can do is hope it’s a change that benefits the workers.

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