• authored by Members for Democracy

It's Labour Reform Day!

It's Labour Day again. All over town, the pillars of the mainstream labour movement will be slapping each other on the back and dishing out great big gobs of uninspired rhetoric. The glorious past of labour (about which many of them only have the dimmest idea), the dismal present (for which blame will be heaped on the usual doorsteps), the scary future (which, if we try really hard, we might make marginally better than the present). Not much to get excited about.

Here at MFD, we're really not into that. We're celebrating Labour Reformer Day - something much more interesting and inspiring. It's a good day for taking stock of things and getting with our vision. We're going to take a long look around us, behind and ahead of us and do some straight talking about what's wrong with the whole mainstream scene. It's time that mainstream labour faced some hard realities about the present. We're going to talk about what it's going to take for unions to connect with workers and be a relevant force in the future. It's time that mainstream labour looked into the future with the intention of being a part of it.

We also want to take a look back at the efforts of the early unionists, those forward-thinking dedicated rebels who, many years ago, facilitated a quantum leap forward for workers and at those of us today, who by our efforts, hope to do the same. We modern-day reformers can learn a lot from the experiences of the early unionists because, like us, they too were labour reformers - they were forming unions, we are re-forming unions. What they did, how they did it and where it led can tell us a lot about the reasons for the current state of stagnation of the mainstream movement and about what it will take to transform our unions (or build new ones) that can engage workers and engage the future.

Let's do the bad news first.

The Present - How lame it has all become

Any which way you slice it, the Canadian labour movement is now in its third fabulous decade of stagnation. Since the 1970's the proportion of Canadian workers belonging to unions hasn't inched its way past 29%. Although this is sometimes touted as a pretty good number compared to the 13% or so in the US, we need to be aware that about 70% of all Canadian union members are concentrated in the shrinking public sector. Among those who belong to unions there are tangible signs of dissatisfaction with what they receive in exchange for their dues dollar. 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 sprouted in many large unions, among these the Teamsters, Labourers, Hotel and Restaurant Employees, our own beloved UFCW and even the fiercely social movement unionist Canadian Union of Public Employees. All of these are warning signs that inside the house of labour there is stagnation and growing discontent.

Outside the house of labour, the situation is even more grim. Perhaps the most startling indicator of labour's disconnectedness from working people is its failure to make any significant inroads in the booming service sector. Despite the low wages, dreadful working conditions and perpetual job insecurity that are standard features of many service industry jobs, unions have registered "no sale" in the majority of their attempts to organize service industry workers. At the present time, only 8% of Canadian service industry workers belong to unions.

Where to lay the blame for why it's so lame...

Mainstream union leaders lay the blame for their underwhelming service sector performance mainly on anti-union campaigns mounted by bad employers and changes in labour laws that make it more difficult to organize workers. Some even blame 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 make a whole lot of sense however. Anti-union campaigns are nothing new. Tactics employed in the first half of the last century make today's union busting campaigns look tame, but during this period unions organized thousands of workers. Labour legislation hasn't changed in any significant way since the late 1940's when our present "statutory scheme" was introduced. When we consider the accomplishments of the early (pre-1940's) unionists and the awful conditions under which they laboured and went to bat for workers, the conventional excuses wear pretty thin.

What makes workers connect with unions?

Two decades of behavioral science research into unions and their members also turns the much of the conventional excuses upside down. The research (much of it conducted by organizations sympathetic to organized labour - see Building More Effective Unions by Paul F. Clark for a good overview) tells us that:

The single most important factor in facilitating worker interest in unions is job dissatisfaction, but,

The most critical factor influencing worker decisions to join or not join a union are their attitudes towards unions and unions' perceived effectiveness.

So, dissatisfaction with wages, working conditions and management are not, in themselves enough to prompt workers to join. What really counts is what workers think about unions in general and the extent to which workers believe that belonging to a union will help 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
  • Impact on society
  • And - get this - the extent to which democracy, inclusiveness and participation are valued within the union's organizational culture.

So, if a union can't deliver at negotiations, appears disconnected from the broad social concerns of its members or operates like fiefdom, workers have little desire to join. Who needs to pay dues for that?

The long march to disconnectedness

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

If we look at the unionized service industry and the track record of some of the major unions over the past 30 years, we see a whole lot of common threads and alarming developments. Enormous unions that, despite their size and bargaining power, bargain wage concessions, two tier pay scales, and the virtual elimination of full time secure jobs - while the employers reap record profits. Union members told to settle for less while union officials reward themselves with six digit salaries and perks that rival those paid to corporate executives. Membership growth attributable largely to mergers with other unions and voluntary recognition arrangements with employers. Back room deals crafted in secret and never ratified by members. Constitutions and governance processes that provide for little in the way of real democracy. Important decisions left to executive boards rather than the membership. Attempts by members at reform dealt with in ham-fisted fashion through lawsuits and threats of expulsion from the union and dismissal from their jobs.

Then there's the whole corruption phenomenon. As much as nobody in the mainstream wants to admit it, corruption seems to be somewhat rampant. (Have a look at this document,, if you want a sense of the extent of the problem. Yes, yes it's all about US unions - corruption doesn't exist among unions in Canada - at least not officially. There's some mysterious thing at the border that keeps it out.)

None of this is news to union officials, their disaffected members or labour movement leaders. But nobody speaks about it, nobody acknowledges it, everybody keeps looking the other way - all in the name of labour solidarity. Criticizing fellow members of labour's country club is frowned upon. It's much easier to lay the blame on the usual suspects - the corporations, the government, union members themselves. It's much easier to ignore the voices of disaffected members than to cause discomfort at the next mainstream labour social function.

What the mainstream leaders aren't getting though is that while they keep looking the other way, out on the street, everybody's getting wise. Disaffected union members 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 aren't happy about being exploited by the corporations but are at the same time, not feeling any warmer about being 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 don't 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 composition 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 - a commodity that generates profit.

The Past - clues to getting reconnected

What can be done to reconnect with workers? A look back may provide some clues:

What seems lost on the mainstream leaders who blame the bad employers and bad legislation for their woes is that, only a few decades ago, unions organized thousands of workers under conditions that make today's look cushy by comparison. To say that the early unionists (we'll call them the early reformers) had one tough row to hoe would be an understatement. To begin with, it's not that they had bad legislation; they had no legislation. Joining a union was not even a right until the late 1800's (up to that time it was a criminal offense). Even after joining a union was decriminalized, employers were under no obligation to recognize any union as a bargaining agent for their workers (even if they signed up every last one of them) and were under no obligation to bargain. These did not become obligations until the late 1940's in Canada (the mid-1930's in the US).

Those familiar with labour history will know of the awful mistreatment to which the early union leaders, organizers and workers in general were subject. These people had more to worry about than unjust discipline or chats about "company good/union bad". They were fired, blacklisted from working in their trade, beaten, jailed, and charged with all manner of offenses. They had no laws to protect them - even poorly enforced, toothless laws. Their leaders had no money, no resources, no law firms on retainer, no politicians on a string, and no political lobbyists in their hip pocket. The workers were poor, most living from hand to mouth. There was no employment insurance, no public health care, nothing. Losing a job meant a plunge into abject poverty for them and their families. But they persisted. They stuck their necks out. They struck, picketed, rallied, stared down the employers, the government, everybody that got in the way. They organized thousands, they got recognition and bargained agreements with employers who had no obligation to sit down with them and who held them in the utmost of contempt. The labour laws we have today came about as a result of these early rebels and their impact at the workplace level.

These links will tell you a little more about what life was like for the early reformers and the workers they stood up for:

What made the early reformers so successful while their bigger, better (?), politically connected, richly-rewarded, modern-era counterparts spin their wheels? If we look back, there are a few things that the early reformers did differently that come immediately to mind:

Their leaders were not rich pompous men. They were workers. They stayed close to their members. They worked in the same establishments, lived in the same communities, socialized in the same places. They never got disconnected. They didn't hang with management, didn't wine, dine and golf with corporate big shots.

They used their limited resources fully and completely to the advantage of the workers they represented.

Their organizations were small. Those that were larger quickly evolved a system of locals that had a great deal of autonomy.

Within the locals, democratic processes were nurtured and respected. Discussion of democracy, fairness and the role of workers in society were commonplace and encouraged among workers.

Union life was not restricted to the workplace. There was recognition of the interconnectedness of work and personal life. Family and community were recognized as an important dimension of working life. "Membership" did not mean separation from non-members.

The early leaders did not fear information, education and communication. Early leaders encouraged debate, discussion and the flow of information (even given the primitive IT of the time).

They were close to their people, their communities, their democratic principles and most of all, these guys had a vision.

The Future - The early unionists were reformers and so are we!

Today's union reformers have a few things in common with the early reformers. The methods of harassment, intimidation, and coercion are different - but their intended outcomes are the same. But we persist, we have a vision of a future that is good for workers, we have the same values and principles as our predecessors: autonomous, inclusive, democratic workers organizations that acknowledge the importance of all dimensions of workers' lives - their families, communities, their interests, skills and talent. The wise use of resources in favour of workers. A single-mindedness of purpose.

Although it may not seem like it, we have achieved a lot. We are talking about what's wrong, we're shining bright lights into dark places, we're building networks with like-minded others, we're scoping out what kind of a future we want. We are not wasting our time chasing politicians or asking yesterday's institutions to help us - they won't. We are stepping outside the boxes created for us by our employers and our mainstream unions and saying - no thanks. We don't have to think like you. We'll think for ourselves. As modern day reformers we have advantages and tools that our predecessors could not even have dreamed about. We have information, we have remarkable communication tools and we have the benefit of the experiences of many who went before us and - the time is right.

So labour reformers, have a good one. Be well, raise hell.

© 2023 Members for Democracy