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  • authored by Hugh Finnamore

Canada's Labour Bureaucracy

Irrelevant and Dysfunctional

The Canadian Labour Congress' (CLC) 23rd Constitutional Convention wrapped up in Vancouver today, and once the holiday spirit and hangovers subside, the spectre of irrelevancy will return to haunt the decaying house of labour.

The future remains bleak for Canada's labour bureaucracy because the union elite are so bound by secret codes and destructive cultures that they have strangled the life out of a once vibrant movement. As Bob Dylan wrote in Union Sundown, "The unions are big business, friend, and they're goin' out like a dinosaur." Federal NDP leader, Alexa McDonough seems to agree with her claim last week that the Canadian labour movement is a "dysfunctional mess".

Listening this week to CLC head dinosaur Ken Georgetti, it's obvious that he doesn't publicly share Ms. McDonough's or Bob Dylan's views. Instead, he opened the CLC convention by bragging that the CLC is as meaningful as ever, has grown by 200 thousand members through mergers and acquisitions. He says that with a bit of a minor "culture," adjustment and by boosting its relevance, its 46-year legacy of inconsequence will be erased, and it will miraculously be transformed into a political force to be reckoned with.

His statistics on CLC per capita revenue may be valid, but those numbers don't translate into unionization growth. In fact, Canadian unions have steadily shriveled since the 1980s. When unions and Statistics Canada talk about union membership numbers, they include people in retail operations where two or three union members now work part-time where one worked before. Growth in existing bargaining units has little to do with Canadians seeking out union representation. If a union is certified for an employer, new hires have no say in whether they wish to belong to a union. They must become and remain members if they are to continue being employed for that employer.

During the past decade governments drastically cut back on public servants, and those numbers are only now rebounding to levels not seen since around 1993. This is significant when you consider that close to 80 percent of all union members in Canada work in the public sector. It's also significant to note that governments employ around 20 percent of the Canadian workforce. If it wasn't for government workers, the CLC could hold its convention in a coffee shop. If they don't change their ways, they may very well meet there in years to come.

In his feel-good opening remarks, Mr. Georgetti stood before the faithful and boasted about the statistical dichotomy of 70 percent of all Canadians believing that unions benefit workers while the same percentage of non-union workers report that they don't want a union to represent them. All as I can say is, "do the math, Mr. Georgetti, with labour 21 percent short of a majority ain't exactly a stellar endorsement for the present crop of unions."

Ms. McDonough, while accurate in assessing the extent she mess she sees in the house of labour, is blind to the realities of the so-called labour movement. She lays all blame for labour's woes squarely at straight-talking Buzz Hargrove's feet. She complains that he "pushes against the rules," and by being frank and outspoken that he's "gutless" and a "destructive force" within the labour movement. It's obvious that if you push the rules in the house of labour, you pay the consequences.

Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Dan MacLennan pushed against the rules when he championed the rights of individual union members by saying that there is a "continued need for change in the labour movement to recognize that all of our members are intelligent people who have the right to make decisions affecting their working lives. These people are not the property of the union of which they happen to be a member." Mr. MacLennan stood by his words and was kicked out of the house.

Buzz Hargrove pushed against the rules when he forcefully said, "It doesn't matter how badly a union represents its members, or how much it loses the confidence of those who pay its bills. Its members can't switch affiliations.... And as long as dues money keeps flowing in from workers who are treated more like indentured servants than trade unionists, then the picture of happy solidarity is preserved-for the union leaders, anyway." Mr. Hargrove, stood tall and received the boot as well.

For his efforts, honesty and iconoclastic views, Buzz Hargrove was repeatedly booed by the CLC delegates who are too obtuse and one dimensional to really understand what he is up to. The guy is doing the Heimlich Maneuver on Canada's labour body and the machine-heads and their wannabes mistake it for a mugging.

What are the rules that Ms. McDonough accuses Mr. Hargrove of pushing? Long-time union reformer Herbert Benson calls the rules, "The secret code of union officialdom." In his 1999 article Rising Tide of Union Democracy, Mr. Benson says, "the chiseled-in-stone commandments that govern relations among union officials, is a code seldom broken that mandates loyalty, mutual support, and a live-and-let-live attitude.... In its most extreme and debased form, the code prescribes that you may run your union as you see fit-even honestly-as long as I am permitted to run mine as I see fit, without public criticism."

That code is precisely what drives Canada's labour movement. And that code long ago crashed it headlong into irrelevance.

To placate straight shooters like Mr. MacLennan and Mr. Hargrove, the CLC elite formulated resolutions to debate at this convention regarding a "protocol of behaviour" for inter-union relations. Those rules of engagement are little more than a minimal paint touch-up on a house that needs a massive renovation if not razing. And as luck would have it Mr. Georgetti fancies himself the contractor for the job. He says he's a builder and chafes at references to Mr. Hargrove's pushing of the rules by saying, "I'd rather have a mandate to build rather than to repair problems."

However, that remains to be proven. Mr. Georgetti the self-proclaimed "pragmatic moderate" who likes to find common ground because as he says he's, "a pretty good mediator." However, his actions and behaviour leave onlookers with room to doubt. In his opening sermon to the Canadian labour congregation, he refers to his Italian roots and then dedicates an "Italian salute" to BC Premier Gordon Campbell who Mr. Georgetti says is leading "a government that is acting like a bully". He goes on to say that Ontario Premier, "Ernie Eves looks like he lives in the 50s; I didn't know they made that much Brylcreem anymore." Despite these cheap personal attacks, Georgetti complains bitterly that today's politicians are far too willing to listen to CEOs who "do not deserve the attention."

It may be a bitter pill for Mr. Georgetti to swallow, but he had better get used to being ignored by politicians. Except for the ones union capo Hal C. Banks may have filmed in compromising situations with a "nurse" back in the '60s, politicians have little time for listening to the corporate needs of union bosses. Politicians have rarely given unions substantial power. In fact, history reveals the opposite. Politicians pass labour and employment laws that make it less attractive to join unions. However, that has never stopped union machine heads from taking credit for those changes.

However, if organized labour ever hopes to regain its relevance, if it ever hopes to fulfill the needs of working people, the dinosaurs leaders will either have to step aside or start listening to the likes of Buzz Hargrove and Dan MacLennan and start paying attention to the needs of individual workers. Its leaders will have to ask what workers want rather than telling them what they need. They must make it as easy to leave a union as it is to join. If Mr. Georgetti is sincere about creating a new "culture" within the union movement, he'd be best to start with a culture that respects the rights of individual workers as opposed to the current culture that protects the rights of union fat cats and parasites concerned with protecting their corporate turf and assets.

And Mr. Georgetti may find that he's not up to implementing such a massive cultural change. He knows full well that since its inauguration in 1956 and beginning with its first president, Claude Jodoin, the CLC has turned a blind eye to the plight of individual workers who suffer at the hands of corrupt union bosses. Employers and "prominent trade union officials" were instrumental in having the Seafarers' International Union send a violent thug to raid the Canadian Seamens' Union because it was too far left and militant for their liking. CLC boss, Mr. Jodoin, personally endorsed the immigration application of Hal C. Banks, a notorious union goon who ripped off and physically beat managers and union members alike in the 1950s and '60s. The CLC elite stayed silent about Banks' atrocities and yelled only when he began to "raid" members from a large CLC affiliate. Up to that time and since, the secret code of union officialdom has served as the foundation for CLC culture.

Is there a snowball's chance in hell that the culture might change to one of relevancy? I don't think so. During the Convention a media representative asked Mr. Georgetti, "Is there going to a debate at this convention about individual members' rights-the right to leave unions and switch unions?" Mr. Georgetti responded by asking the media representative whether he had "any real questions." He then demanded that the media representative's media credentials revoked and that he be "thrown off the floor." Like I said, not much has changed in "labour land" since 1956.

Hugh Finnamore, a former union official, is now a senior consultant at Vancouver-based Workplace Strategies Inc.
E-mail: workplace@telus.net
© 2002 Hugh Finnamore

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