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  • authored by WM Pasz
  • published Fri, Jul 18, 2003

Soaking, Sucking and Silence

Labour-Management Partnering Spells Meltdown for the House of Labour

As I read and reread the material that has been posted on this web site over the past week about the concessionary deal struck between Loblaw Companies and UFCW Canada Locals 175, 1000a and 1977, I found myself running out of expletives for the players behind this deal. I am not sure which I find more pathetic:

  1. A highly profitable business, an industry leader in fact, that claims it can't take on a new entrant in the marketplace except on the backs of its workers; or
  2. A union that can't say no to the highly profitable market leader's demands for concessions which it shoves those down its members' throats like so much out-of-code bologna and "labour movement" that demurely looks the other way while thousands of working men and women get screwed.

I guess they're both deplorable in their own way but I find the last one especially so. We can expect the leaders of profit-oriented businesses to stop at nothing in their pursuit of increased profitability. If a bunch of union leaders can persuaded to accept less for their members - whenever, wherever and for whatever reasons - it's worth a shot. When maximizing profit is your only objective, pretty much anything can be rationalized as a good business strategy. That's how it is in our free market economy.

That's why unions are so important. So that workers can effectively stand up to the corporate leaders when the suits just can't get enough. That's why a "labour movement" is so important. So that working people, whatever they do for a living, can advance their collective interests and can support each other when the going gets tough.

The problem is that certain unions have lost sight of their reason for being or have in the least misunderstood "effectively standing up..." to mean "effectively sucking up to corporate leaders". This misunderstanding seems to be especially prevalent in the service industry. The leaders of the mainstream labour movement - the labour umbrella organizations like the Canadian Labour Congress, Ontario Federation of Labour and the like - don't seem to think it matters. They're sticking religiously to what union reform advocate Herman Benson calls the Secret Code of Union Officialdom.

"... the chiseled-in-stone commandments that govern relations among union officials, (are) a code seldom broken that mandates loyalty, mutual support, and a live-and-let-live attitude. In a smooth transition, the old head of the pack retires or steps down gracefully, is always replaced in a celebratory spirit of amiable consensus, is honored by accolades for past services to humanity, and is rewarded with a golden parachute. 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." (The Rising Tide of Union Democracy, Herman Benson, 1995)

The Secret Code essentially states: Do what you want with your members. They're yours and it's just not on for anyone to tell you how to treat them.

So far, it's the union members who have been the victims of these strategies of soaking up, sucking up and sanctimonious silence but eventually, the chickens are going to come home to roost for the big boys (and they are mostly boys) at the corporate office, the union office and the "house of labour" in general.

It's hard to imagine how any business that relies on squeezing its workers as a its primary means of achieving competitive advantage is going to thrive over the long term. This is particularly so when we consider the massive labour shortage that is lurking about a decade into the future. At the same time, it's hard to imagine how union members who are better informed about their rights than ever and able to communicate among themselves in large numbers, are going to continue to shell out dues for the privilege of getting soaked by your employer.

For the mainstream labour movement (that big gang of mainstream labour leaders and their hangers-on), the roosting has already begun. No one wants to admit it. The mainstream heavies are too busy condemning corporate greed while looking the other way when their affiliates bargain concessions but the fact is that workers are not beating a path to the house of labour and none of the tired old rationalizations for this are holding much water.

The Canadian labour movement has entered its third decade of stagnation. Since the 1970's the proportion of Canadian workers belonging to unions has held steady at about 30% but has not increased. Although this is often touted as an impressive number (compared to union membership in the US which is at about 13%) the majority of Canadian union members are concentrated in the public sector (80% of the total); private sector workers make up only 19%. Among those who belong to unions there are tangible signs of dissatisfaction with the quality of representation they receive from their unions. The Ontario Labour Relations Board reports that complaints of unfair representation by union members against their unions have increased by 50% in recent years. Union reform movements have sprung up in many large unions - the Teamsters, Labourers, Hotel and Restaurant Employees, United Food and Commercial Workers and even CUPE. All of these are warning signs that inside the house of labour there is stagnation and growing discontent.

Beyond the "organized" workforce, however, perhaps the most troubling indicator of labour's disconnectedness from working people is its failure to make any significant inroads in the service sector. Despite the low wages and job insecurity that are standard features of many service industry jobs, unions have failed miserably in attempts to organize workers there. (At the present time, only 8% of workers employed in the service industry belong to unions.)

Union leaders will take issue with the suggestion that their failure in the service industry is their own fault. The blame, they say, belongs on anti-union campaigns mounted by employers, changes in labour laws that make it more difficult to organize workers and the casual nature of service industry jobs themselves - workers don't expect long service, so aren't interested in the benefits that derive from union membership.

None of these rationalizations stand up to scrutiny however. Anti-union campaigns are nothing new. Tactics employed in the first half of the 20th century make today's union busting campaigns look tame, but during this period unions organized significant numbers of workers, won recognition and bargained significant gains for workers even though employers were not required to negotiate with them and there were no laws to protect union members at all.

Then there is two decades worth of behavioral science research into unions and their members. The research (much of it conducted by organizations sympathetic to organized labour) tells us that although the single most important factor in facilitating worker interest in unions is job dissatisfaction; the most critical factor influencing worker decisions to join or not join a union are their attitudes towards unions and unions' perceived effectiveness. Dissatisfaction with wages, working conditions and management are not in themselves enough to prompt workers to join unions. What really counts is what workers think about unions in general and the extent to which workers believe that belonging to a union will be beneficial to them.

What workers think about unions is the product of their own experiences with unions or those of their families and friends. If their experiences are not positive, they are less likely to vote to join a union. A union's effectiveness is measured by its ability to organize new members, collective bargaining outcomes, its impact on society and the extent to which democracy; inclusiveness and participation are valued within the union's organizational culture. If the union can't deliver at negotiations, appears disconnected from the broad social concerns of its members or operates like fiefdom, workers have little incentive to join. Who needs to pay dues for that? Contrary to conventional labour movement wisdom, workers' decisions around joining unions are influenced to a much lesser extent by appeals to altruism or attempts to vilify management. Anti-union programs have some effect in influencing workers' decisions; but they are a secondary consideration. Part time workers can be as committed to a union as full timers it has been found, provided of course that it is perceived to be an effective union. (Source: Building More Effective Unions, Paul F. Clark, Cornell University Press, 2000)

Assuming that there is something to all this research, what is likely to be the perception of unions by service industry workers? While union representation in the industry as a whole is low, certain segments of the service industry are heavily unionized providing us with a basis to assess union effectiveness. The retail food industry is one example.

The Canadian retail food business is dominated by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, an enormous US-based union representing some 200,000 workers in Canada. The majority of UFCW members in Canada work for supermarket chains. Despite its size and bargaining power, the UFCW has bargained wage concessions, two tier pay scales, and the virtual elimination of full time secure jobs in an industry where the major players have reaped record profits. While members have been told to settle for less, union officials have rewarded themselves with six digit salaries and lucrative perks.

The union's membership growth is attributable largely to mergers with other unions and voluntary recognition arrangements (which give the union automatic recognition for workers at new locations, thus sparing it the expense of having to organize) with the employers. So reliant has the UFCW become on these deals that it has even gone so far as to enter into formal Partnering Agreements with employers; agreeing to restrict its right to strike in exchange for thousands of new members.

The union's constitution and governance processes provide for little in the way of real democracy. Important decisions are made by executive boards, not by the membership at large. Attempts by members at reform are dealt with in ham-fisted fashion. UFCW reformers have been threatened with expulsion from the union and dismissal from their jobs. Activists who have taken up their cause have been subject to smear tactics or threatened with lawsuits. Of course, the UFCW is not an anomaly. Other service industry unions are guilty of similar practices. The UFCW just stands out because of its size and dominant position in the service industry.

None of this is news to union officials, their disaffected members or to labour movement leaders. But within the corridors of the CLC and the OFL, nobody speaks about it, nobody acknowledges it, everybody keeps looking the other way - all in the name of labour solidarity. Criticizing affiliates of labour's country club is frowned upon. Even CAW President Buzz Hargrove, who, for a brief shining moment in 2000 weighed in on the side of union democracy, has been mysteriously silent on the subject since the CAW made its peace with the SEIU and was welcomed back into the CLC. It's much easier to lay the blame on the usual suspects - the corporations, the government, the union members themselves. It's much easier to ignore the voices of disaffected members than to cause discomfort at the country club.

But as much as the labour movement luminaries refuse to listen to the voices that ask for their help, the members' voices do not fall entirely on deaf ears. They talk to each other, to their friends, to their children, to whoever may ask them what it's like to be in a union. Without really knowing it, they create the attitudes and perceptions that are stopping the labour movement in its tracks. The unorganized are dissatisfied with being exploited by corporations but are, at the same time unwilling to pay to be exploited by unions.

How can the leaders of Canada's labour movement expect unorganized service industry workers to want to join their unions when significant numbers of their unionized counterparts do not realize any benefit from belonging to a union? How do they expect workers - in whatever industry - to rally behind them to take on the exploiters of labour when they have become exploiters themselves? By continuing to turn a blind eye to the plight of thousands of underrepresented union members, organized labour has created its own underclass, the demographics of which (women, youth, people of colour, recent immigrants) reflects the underclass of the society they are seeking to change. This underclass serves the same purpose for the union as it does for the corporation - it's a commodity that generates profit.

As a former labour relations representative in the service industry, I can tell you first hand that service workers want and need representation. I've seen workers go to the wall to support unions - if they believed in them. I've seen workers endure all manner of anti-union harassment without losing their resolve. I've also seen them sold down the river over a few drinks - by men who march in the parade on Labour Day singing Solidarity Forever. It goes on and it's time we understand the scale on which it goes on and the damage done.

The leaders of the Canadian labour movement have issued dozens of media releases, reports and studies condemning the casualization of work in the service industry and the particularly onerous impact this has had on women, youth, new Canadians. Yet they sit with their thumbs up their bums and their minds in neutral as one of their major affiliates inks a deal that stands to set off another "race for the bottom" in an industry already hit hard by years of concession bargaining. It's time they showed some leadership and addressed the rot in their own house. Until they do, it will be just another oppressive place and who will want to go there?

There have been many concessionary deals done in the service industry over the past two decades. Each one has weakened the position of the mainstream labour movement by causing more and more workers to ask what the hell is the point of belonging to a union when they could just as easily give up their wages, benefits and working conditions on their own. With each successive deal, the house of labour has creaked a little more.

The UFCW's latest concessionary deal is setting loose a bucket full of termites into the already decaying house. The mainstream labour community's silence could mean a meltdown for the private-sector wing of the house. The UFCW isn't simply damaging its already sullied reputation; it's smearing any and all who espouse unionism as a defense against workplace oppression.

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