Future shock in organized labor

Dian Cohen August 12 1985

Future shock in organized labor

Dian Cohen August 12 1985

Future shock in organized labor


Dian Cohen

The Canadian labor movement is fighting for its life. Union membership is falling right across Canada, and in Quebec it is at a 16-year low, according to a national survey just released by the Quebec department of labor. Many union members are growing mistrustful of the collective bargaining process; in an unusual display of censure, the Canadian Air Line Flight Attendants’ Association recently voted against a recommendation of its chairman because of displeasure with his handling of negotiations on an Air Canada contract.

Meanwhile, organized labor is coping with challenges to its basic prerogatives. This month in the Ontario Supreme Court, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union will defend itself against an application by Mervyn Lavigne, a teacher from Haileybury, Ont., who wants to restrict the union’s current practice of using dues to support political parties and causes. And next month in the Supreme Court of Ontario, Dolly Foran, owner of Arlington Crane Service Ltd., of Hamilton, Ont., is challenging the provincial Labor Relations Act under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, because, Foran argues, the Charter guarantees freedom of association and, by implication, nonassociation.

It would be simple if the problems confronting organized labor were the result of the last recession, from which we have not yet recovered. But instead they are long-term and structural. And they are forcing labor leaders to stretch their minds mightily to ensure that they, and the labor movement, survive.

The last generation of labor leaders could count on firm beliefs about the place of work in the social order. They could predict the political values a worker would hold and the length of time he or, more rarely, she was willing to work in a day, a week, a lifetime. The leaders also knew that although labor disputes could be bitter they were largely quantitative disagreements—over dollars and hours—that both parties could eventually resolve through an elaborate, adversarial collective-bargaining system. Everybody knew and accepted the rules; it was okay to fight the good fight because it would ultimately ensure a fair contract for both sides. Above all, the adversarial principle was consistent with the view that economics, and human nature, were inevitably competitive.

But now many economists and social

thinkers are challenging basic premises about competition, including its place in traditional collective bargaining. As a result, the appropriateness of the adversarial approach for handling long-term, complex issues—with implications for Canada’s international competitiveness —is in serious doubt. And the doubts are touching both organized labor’s leaders and those who elect them.

I often wonder whether the players at Canada’s bargaining tables still know with whom they should be fighting. And I wonder if they know how to proceed fairly when labor-management disputes hamper the economy’s overall performance. Do they even know what they are fighting about—or have the goals changed in subtle, pervasive ways?

When labor leaders face those questions the issues are even trickier, because new constituencies of workers have new perspectives on work. People spend a smaller proportion of their life-

To succeed in the future, union leaders must have attributes that are painfully lacking on the labor scene now

time at work and change jobs more frequently than their parents did —making it difficult to define a “typical” worker, let alone his or her interests.

The average worker is no longer predictably male, the head of a family or the sole wage earner. That fact throws into doubt the wisdom of helping those workers by excluding people under 16 and over 65 from the mainstream of the work force. Indeed, the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations are both preparing test cases under the Charter to challenge the concept of mandatory retirement, although that concept has opened jobs to younger workers in the past. Increasingly, sex and age differences between workers are forcing union leaders to cope simultaneously with demands for day care and improved pensions.

As well, the office and factory are no longer the only locales we think of as workplaces. As we acquire word processors and sell services instead of things, work can happen anywhere. And once

carefully drawn distinctions between rank-and-file employees and owners are breaking down, especially in the vital smaller business sector. Labor organizers have a difficult time organizing in co-ops and entrepreneurial partnerships and articulating the needs of their increasingly diverse constituents.

Meanwhile, as our definition of a job becomes more fluid, union negotiators face new factors in collective bargaining. Canadian workers now seek more nontaxable benefits, flexible job structures, job sharing and take-home work tasks. At the same time, minority groups within the ranks are forwarding fresh goals in bargaining: affirmative action, equal pay for work of equal value, educational leave and working in a safe, unpolluted environment.

But both workers and their leaders lack a clear sense of whom to turn to for reform. Responsibility often falls somewhere between business and government. Figuring out who should pay for a pollution cleanup, a long-term health problem or redress of sexual discrimination in a job requires the bargaining parties to take a co-operative approach. And that is antithetical to the traditional adversarial style.

In the future, to succeed, union leadership will have to develop characteristics that are painfully lacking on the labor scene now. First among them is the ability to manage several competing interests at once, and to adapt to a work force that is diversifying quickly. Success also hinges on how well union leaders judge which issues are legitimate subjects for collective bargaining and which would be better dealt with through joint study between workers and bosses. The Canadian steel industry is a good example: if it is to compete internationally, preserve jobs and make productivity gains, management and labor will have to assume joint responsibility for hiring, firing, wage rates—and the basic structure of the industry.

It is easy to understand why Canadian labor leaders feel that they are under siege. But it will not help to cling to the logic of the past or to fight to preserve yesterday’s agenda. Labor must find cooperative ground with management and embrace a wider constituency than its own union membership. That means developing imaginative ways to resolve conflict and rising above the animosity of the old-fashioned picket line.

Dian Cohen is a Montreal-based, economics writer.