State of the unions

Labor's Love Lost

A union man looks at the movement with frustration, anger — and pride

ED FINN May 1 1974
State of the unions

Labor's Love Lost

A union man looks at the movement with frustration, anger — and pride

ED FINN May 1 1974

Labor's Love Lost

State of the unions

A union man looks at the movement with frustration, anger — and pride


Would you be interested in a public relations post with the Canadian Labor Congress?"

Those words came crackling over the long distance wires between Ottawa and my home in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, one evening in the fall of 1959; the call was from Bill Dodge, then executive vice-president of the Congress, and it whisked me out of the backwaters of Newfoundland journalism into the maelstrom of organized labor — into a world of conflict and complexity that few Canadians understand.

I came to the CLC’s attention during the turbulent loggers’ strike in Newfoundland during the winter of 1958-1959. Unlike most of the press fraternity on the island, I sympathized with the loggers and said so in my newspaper column. They were being callously exploited and underpaid by the paper companies. Most of the violence that punctuated their strike was done to them, not by them. Their rebellion was finally crushed by the government of Joey Smallwood, a politician who came to power on the promise of uplifting the island’s working people.

In accepting the CLC’s job offer, I chose to serve with labor, and I’ve never regretted that decision. Despite the widespread myths about labor power and its alleged abuse, unions remain very much the underdogs in their ongoing battle against employers and governments. They need all the help they can get from sympathetic professionals and academics — even though their elected leaders are inclined to sneer at “eggheads” and spurn their advice.

The average union officer is basically anti-intellectual. A graduate of the “hard knocks” school, he fought his way to the top in an industrial jungle. He prides himself on his hardnosed practicality and views academics as idealistic dreamers. Forced to hire technicians to do research and cut through the intricacies of labor laws, he regards them as necessary evils and sometimes as threats to his authority and prestige.

That attitude makes it difficult for outsiders to come into the labor movement and feel at home. Their skills are not fully appreciated or used. The inverse snobbery of their employers tends to ostracize them, to deny them full union citizenship.

The hired technician who expects his opinions as well as his skills to be sought is the most rapidly disillusioned. My relationship with the CLC officers proceeded from “strained” to “cool” to “frigid” when I insisted on exercising the same freedom of speech inside the labor movement that I had enjoyed as a journalist.

I can understand the labor leaders’ resentment. They suffer from what might be called a siege mentality; a conviction that they are beset on all sides by hostile forces in business, in gov-

ernment, in the press. Like a nation at war, they expect blind adherence within their ranks to their policies and decisions. Anyone who questions and offers alternatives is denounced as a traitor or troublemaker. The persistent emphasis on the need for solidarity is a convenient excuse to avoid self-criticism and to perpetuate obsolete methods and structures.

The goals of organized labor are admirable, and its function of redistributing the nation’s wealth indispensable. But its internal conservatism is appalling. Its sentries patrol the ramparts of Fortress Labor, ready to repel invaders armed with Dangerous New Ideas. Inside, its “Holy Office” keeps a vigilant eye on suspected heretics, ready to send them to Coventry if they deviate too far from official dogma.

Industries, schools, churches, political parties, and most other institutions have been transformed beyond recognition since I joined the labor movement. But a labor leader who went into a coma in 1959 and recovered today could step back into his old job without missing a stride.

This organizational stupor stifles creativity. It deprives independent thinkers of a congenial climate in which to work, so you don’t find many of them left in the labor movement. Most of the ones who were there when I was ushered across the drawbridge have long since gone to more rewarding jobs in politics, the media, or government service. They include such luminaries as Senator Eugene Forsey, university dean Harry Crowe, NDP secretary Cliff Scotton, TV producer Dick Nielsen, and federal labor department mandarin Harry Waisglass.

Occasionally I’m asked why I’ve stuck with the labor movement for so long. Apart from the glib answer that “it’s the only game in town,” I guess it’s because I haven’t lost hope that Canadian unions can and will rejuvenate themselves, and that in some small way I can help speed that process. In the meantime, having long since left the employ of the CLC, I’m now working for a union — the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers — that not only tolerates the proponents of change and dissent but actively encourages them. The CBRT isn’t a typical union in that sense, but neither is it unique. Several other unions, responding to a confluence of pressures from within and without, are also shaking off the shrouds of lethargy and conservatism.

“We’re entering into a transition period,” Bill Dodge admits, but it may well be a period of immense change. The next 10 years could see a complete transformation of the labor movement into a vigorous, revitalized and fully autonomous force in Canadian society. That may be wishful thinking on my part, but there are many signs pointing in the direction of a long overdue tune-up of labor’s creaky machinery. Among them is the impending retirement of most of the reigning labor patriarchs, and the emergence of younger, more progressive leaders. Another is the infusion of militant young activists into the organized work force. Still another is the rising tide of nationalism engulfing the “international” unions in Canada.

The most publicized challenge to the labor establishment has developed within its own ranks. A campaign to reform the CLC was launched last fall by the presidents of the three largest national unions in the Congress — Stan Little of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Don Secord of the CBRT, and Claude Edwards of the Public Service Alliance of Canada — all of whom sit on the CLC’s executive council.

Their program calls for higher standards of servicing by affiliates, a rigorous code of ethics, Canadian control of American union branches in Canada, a consolidation of labor’s fragmented structure, and the improvement of CLC services to member unions.

There’s nothing radical in these proposals. Most of them have been adopted in principle at previous Congress conventions. The difference in the national union leaders’ approach is that they want action instead of the CLC’s usual empty rhetoric. They want a timetable for the reforms, target dates to be set, and an all-out effort to implement them.

The reaction of Congress officers

continued on page 88


Donald MacDonald International Woodworkers of America 45,000

The Union Establishment

It’s called the Canadian Labor Congress but, as the chart on this page shows, only four of the unions represented in its power structure are strictly Canadian; the 11 others all have direct links to parent unions in the United States. The numbers in the boxes give the memberships of individual unions represented on the CLC executive and of the provincial labor federations.


William Dodge Canadian Brotherhood of Railway. Transport and General Workers 36,000


Jean Beaudry United Steelworkers of America 180.622


Joseph Morris International Woodworkers of America 45.000


Lynn Williams United Steelworkers of America 180.622

Stanley Utile Canadian Union ot Pehlic.Empioyees 182,126


ONTARIO: David Archer Textile Workers Union of America 750,000

Claude Edwards Public Service Alliance of Canada 140.000

William Mahoney United Steelworkers of America 180.622

QUEBEC LOULS Laberge International Association:~. of Machinists 215000

Huguette PPamondon Canadian Food and Allied Workers 55,000

B.C.: George Johnston Cinadian Food and Allied Workers 220.000

ALBERTA: Rag Baskan Oil. Chemical and Atomic Workers Union 90.000

MANITOBA: B. L. Stevens United Steelworkers of America 55.000

NOVA SCOTIA: John Lynk Retail. Wholesale and Department Store Workers 50.000

SASKATCHEWAN: Ross Canadian Union of Public Employees 41000

NEW BRUNSWICK: Paul iePa~1 United Steelworkers ot America 36.000

NEWFOUNDLAND: Arthur Kelly 7 United Paperworkers International Union 26,000

P~Ej,: George Proud 1 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 3J00

Dennis McDermott United Auto Workers 12tEOOD

E. 1. Staley United Brotherhood of : Carpenters and Joiners 17,008

1. H. Lorrain United Paperworkers International Union 52.000

W. C. `I'. Mc6regor Brotherhood of Railway Airline and Steamship Clerks 20.273

Michael Rygus International Association of Machinists 52,000

Donald Secord Canadian Brotherhood at Railway. Transport and General Workers

S~Bres,fer international Ladies Garment Workers' Union 20.000

eorge w~ison Textile Workers Union of America 20.000

C. Neil Reimer Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Internafjonaj Union 17,000

Robert SmeaI~ Canadian Air Line Flight Attendants Association L 4,000

UNIONS from page 22

was predictably one of outrage. They assailed Little, Edwards and Secord as headline hunters who were trying to make the CLC the scapegoat for their own internal union problems. Jean Beaudry, another executive vice-president of the CLC, accused them of attempted blackmail, and vowed, “We will not knuckle under.”

The showdown will come in mid-May at the CLC’s biennial convention in Vancouver. It promises to be the liveliest of all CLC meetings so far, and perhaps the first in which the outcome of major debates hasn’t been preordained. CLC conventions, up to now, have been exercises in manipulative democracy, meticulously planned and regulated by the executive council to give rank-andfile delegates the illusion of decisionmaking while restricting their actual participation to a ritualistic rubberstamping of preset policies.

Now, a genuinely open debate on policies is guaranteed at Vancouver. For a time, it appeared there would also be a battle for the CLC presidency, to be vacated by Donald MacDonald, but the two main contenders, Joe Morris and Bill Dodge, agreed to abide by the decision of the CLC executive council and Morris won the nod by a I0-9 vote.

It would be naïve, however, to expect that a more democratic CLC convention will produce lasting reforms. The sprawling hulk of Canadian labor is simply not susceptible to an overhaul at the CLC level. Even if the reform group were to get all its proposals adopted and its candidates elected, it could still find itself hamstrung. The Congress, after all, is merely an umbrella organization, without any real authority to do anything except act as a handy mouthpiece for its affiliated unions, and as a referee when they start squabbling.

The only time the CLC’s Ottawa headquarters is a repository of power is when its 30-man council meets there. When the meetings end and the council members return to their respective unions, labor power disperses with them. So does the power to veto CLCinitiated reforms in each union’s jurisdiction. No effort to change the labor movement can succeed if confined solely to the CLC. it has to be accompanied or followed by an effort to reform its constituent unions.

There are 2,375,182 unionized workers in Canada. They encompass hundreds of occupations, from plumbers to pilots, from teachers to teamsters. They are divided among 10,361 local union branches and 172 parent unions ranging in size from 100 members to 180,000. About 60% are members of 88 American unions, the remainder belonging to 84 national or regional unions.

Fifteen of the national unions and 77 of the U.S. branches, comprising in all

continued on page 90

UNIONS continued

1,850,000 workers, are affiliated to the CLC, the largest Canadian labor “central.” The other unions are either independent or affiliated with the Quebecbased Confederation of National Trade Unions or the Ontario-based Confederation of Canadian Unions. Most of the American unions are also affiliated with the AFL-CIO in the U.S. The majority of unions in Canada have fewer than 10,000 members. Only 34 have a membership of 20,000 or more.

In addition to the central bodies to which most unions are affiliated, several other groupings exist on a regional, craft or industry basis. These include the CLC’s provincial federations and district councils, and the allied trades groups such as the maritime port and building trades councils.

One cannot generalize accurately about such a structural jumble. Nor is it possible to select one or more unions as typical of the rest. In visiting the offices of various unions, I find that each one is shaped, to a great extent, by the industry or service that employs its members. It tends to be preoccupied with matters relating to that industry. The Postal Workers, for example, are most concerned right now about the automation of various post office functions. The railway unions are trying to get a campaign going to revive passenger travel. Marine unions are preparing briefs on proposed changes in the Canada Shipping Act.

This immersion in the day-to-day routine of protecting their members’ interests keeps most union leaders fully occupied. They have little time to devote to long-term planning or to the broader social issues affecting all workers. They stagger from one interna! crisis to another, reacting rather than initiating, giving priority to those developments that most immediately threaten their own security and well-being.

Since most unions in Canada are badly understaffed, the officers don’t have enough competent assistants to


whom they can delegate administrative duties. This is partly because the unions with fewer than 20,000 members can’t afford to hire enough qualified staff, and partly because unions as employers are no longer attractive to most professionals and intellectuals.

Today’s idealistic college graduate does not gravitate to the labor movement. He opts instead for a stint with Nader’s Raiders, with a storefront law or consumer operation, with CUSO or Pollution Probe. Why? Because labor’s social activism doesn’t go much beyond the passing of pious resolutions at conventions, and to occasional forays into consumer-oriented projects by the labor centrals, the provincial federations and the district councils. The Ontario Federation of Labor, the Labor Council of Metropolitan Toronto and the CNTU in Quebec have been active in the field of human rights, civil liberties, poverty, cooperatives, and community health centres. But their activism is the exception, not the rule. At the level of the individual union — where the action is — the emphasis is almost entirely on market unionism.

Most workers join a union to improve their working conditions, not to help build a better society. There are many exceptions, of course, but the average union member sees his union as a bargaining and servicing agency, and nothing more. The higher the wages the union wins for him, the less receptive he becomes to an extension of the union’s activities into wider social crusades. A graph could probably be drawn to show that his social consciousness declines proportionately as his wages increase. He adopts middle-class values, becomes concerned with his home, car, TV set and other possessions, not with the plight of the poor and unemployed. In short, his search for affluence has turned him into a conservative, and his union into an accessory to that metamorphosis.

Being elected and having to run for

reelection every two or three years, most union leaders are unable to resist the never-ending pressure of their members for “more.” In a sense they are the victims of their own emphasis on business unionism, for their members now judge them solely on their ability to produce more and more at the bargaining table.

In addition to negotiating agreements and processing members’ grievances, union leaders are kept busy trying to extinguish the fires of internal dissent that have been flaring up in recent years. As a union grows, its members become scattered over vast distances, making “participatory democracy” extremely hard to practise. The trend toward centralized bargaining reduces the members’ role still further, making them little more than onlookers.

Regardless of how hard they try, union negotiators can’t please all their members, and the ensuing rank-and-file unrest is causing many problems. One of the most alarming is the tendency to reject proposed contract settlements. Union leaders despair of being able to convey to their members, in a brief ratification ballot, the experience of many months of arguments and trade offs that led to an agreement with the employer. In most cases it can’t be done. There is no substitute for rank-and-file faith in the negotiating team — a rarity in this cynical age.

There are few unions today that don’t have some organized dissident elements; and this is all to the good. It keeps elected leaders on their toes. It does lead as well, however, to the making of decisions on political rather than practical grounds.

Ruminating on this problem, CUPE President Stan Little admitted that “one of the most difficult decisions a union leader has to face today is whether he should tell his members what the real situation is. It’s much easier to make fiery speeches and condemn management and be cheered at a meeting than it is to stand there and tell them the hard, cold economic facts of life — facts he must face when he goes to the bargaining table.”

One of the union negotiator’s biggest assets, while discussions are going on, is a militant membership with high expectations, because he can use it to frighten the employer (and possibly the government) with the unpleasant consequences of not loosening the purse-strings a little more. The catch is that, in feeding the members’ militancy, the union leader cannot at the same time preach realism to them — which means that the settlement he thereby hopes to get is often well below what the members have come to believe they are worth. When offered less, they turn their wrath as much against their own leaders as against the employer.

continued on page 92

UNIONS continued

NDP leader David Lewis has been urging unions to “abandon the habit of making initial demands they know to be extravagant,” arguing that they raise expectations in the membership which cannot be fulfilled — resulting sometimes in strikes that might have been avoided. True enough. But unionists’ expectations usually precede the setting of demands instead of being inflated by them. Expectations are shaped by external events — by the rising cost of living, for example, and by the wage increases achieved by other unions. Labor leaders who may privately favor moderation have no control over these developments.

In calling for unions to exercise restraint, Lewis and other union sympathizers are influenced, at least partly, by labor’s bad public image. Most people, when they think of unions, think of strikes and picket lines. When they think of union leaders, they visualize someone like Hal Banks or Jimmy Hoffa. In fact, strikes are comparatively rare, and corrupt union leaders even rarer.

The union I work for negotiated 117 agreements last year. Only four of them resulted in strikes, and only one of those four — last summer’s rail strike — involved more than 500 workers and lasted more than two weeks. The rail strike was the first legal walkout since 1967 and only the second since 1950.

Every year in Canada more than 10,000 working agreements are negotiated between unions and employers — peaceably and without disruptions. Fewer than 5% of all labor disputes culminate in strikes. But of course it’s the strikes that make the headlines, conveying the impression that labor conflict is incessant.

Even in the worst years for strikes, the number of lost man-days total less than half of 1% of estimated working time. Time lost because of illness and injury greatly exceeds that level. (A cure for the common cold would boost production 100 times more than a ban on strikes!) If it were possible to measure the loss of time and output caused by managerial inefficiency, it might be found to be the greatest time waster of all. Most industries hit by strikes don’t really “lose” much production, anyway. They can make it up by stockpiling in advance and by overtime afterward.

Most union leaders I know are reconciled to their poor public image, and they realize they can’t do much to improve it. The slickest public relations campaign Madison Avenue could devise would be nullified by the next major strike. There’s no way a strike can be prettified, and no way a union can give up the right to strike and continue to do a good job for its members.

The postal unions offer a good example. Prior to 1965 they were model

employees, hardly ever going on strike or interrupting mail deliveries. Their wages were just about the lowest in the federal public service. Then they decided that respectability was a luxury they could no longer afford. They got tough, resorted to the strike, and ever since their popularity has gone down about as fast as their wages have risen.

Much of the militancy that has converted formerly docile unions into growling tigers has come from the new generation of workers who have moved into many industries over the past decade. These youngsters don’t accept the divine right of owners and managers to boss them around. That right has always been considered implicit in the ownership and control of capital, but it is now being seriously challenged in Canada and other industrialized nations.

The unions in Canada have been as backward as management in failing to push for the radical changes needed in the work system to make it more fulfilling and democratic. Most union leaders in this country subscribe as fervently as the most autocratic businessman to the

cleavage between boss and worker. The adversary concept of labor relations, as they see it, would be impossible to sustain if the roles became blurred.

More to the point, union leaders already overloaded with bread-and-butter demands going into negotiations don’t relish having to tackle the awesome challenge of industrial democracy as well, so they simply ignore an issue boiling up around them.

Another irksome problem to the Canadian officers of American unions is the nationalist feeling boiling up in so many of their locals. When the push for self-governing status started about five or six years ago, most defenders of continental unionism dismissed it as the product of a few wild-eyed crackpots — as a fad that would soon disappear. Instead it has mushroomed into a clamor for autonomy among almost all U.S. union branches in this country.

Undoubtedly the biggest disadvantage of continental unionism to Canadian workers is the fragmentation of our labor movement, which the American unions primarily have caused and which they perpetuate. Nearly half the 88 American unions in Canada have

fewer than 5,000 members here, and several have fewer than 1,000 members. There is no rational basis for their existence, other than as appendages of much larger American organizations. Cut loose, they would be unable to survive on their own. But. freed to merge with other unions in the same or similar industries, they could launch the remolding of Canadian labor into 35 or 40 large unions, all of which would be self-sustaining. As matters now stand, they are unable to merge with one another, or with national unions, unless the parent unions consent. Very few have yet done so. The great majority still insist that no mergers should take place in Canada unless preceded by mergers in the U.S.

I could list many other problems that give labor leaders sleepless nights. They are beset on all sides by the kinds of troubles that typify an institution that has failed to adapt and renew itself. Unions are not attracting the best talent; their structure is archaic; their internal communications are primitive; their rule books, to quote. John Gardner of the Carnegie Corporation, “grow fatter as their ideas grow fewer.”

Some of the fault is theirs. Having clawed their way to the top, they are basically insecure and hence prone to conservatism. But the blame for labor’s shortcomings can’t all be dumped on its leaders. Some of them really would like to get their unions out of the rut, but they are stymied by the ignorance and apathy of their membership, by the conflicting vested interests within their bureaucracies, by restrictions imposed from below the border.

During the next five years or so we’ll see a massive turnover in Canada’s labor leadership, as most of the present officers at the top go into retirement. While many will be succeeded by underlings not much younger than themselves, there are significant numbers of bright young union careerists waiting to move into more influential posts. Typical of this new breed are Don Taylor of the Steelworkers, the most likely successor to Bill Mahoney; John Fryer, the ebullient general secretary of the BC Government Employees Union; Bob Bouchard of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians; and Reg Basken, the Chemical Workers’ rep who now heads the Alberta Federation of Labor.

Young men and women of this calibre, more spirited, more imaginative and open-minded, will soon take over the reins of union power. It remains to be seen if they can make the mastodons of labor respond to the reins in the way they would like, or whether the process of organizational decay has gone too far.

Whatever the outcome, the next five years promise to be among the most exciting in Canadian labor history.