• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Dec 22, 2001

A surprise for reformers this holiday season

More and more these days discussion in our forum is turning from what's wrong with the unions we've got to what kind of unions we want and the need for change - whether that change involves reforming existing unions or reinventing - creating - new ones.

For those who are seriously considering the latter, it's a difficult bridge to cross. It's the last place on earth that the mainstream of labour wants us to go. Our current crops of unions - even the really awful ones - are as good as it gets, we're told. Sure, some of them may have a few wrinkles, but it's up to us to iron those out. Everybody in the house of labour is OK - we know this because they're all CLC-approved. In the face of this unrelenting pressure to shut up and be grateful for the unions we've got, it's really hard to get your head around the fact that it's OK to want something different and to define what that is going to be.

A landmark Supreme Court decision handed down earlier this week, could help us a lot - whether we are reformers, reinventors or people who just plain want to know more about workers and their rights. Oh yes we know, the gang at UFCW headquarters and at the Canadian Labour Club are excited about it too, but for altogether different reasons.

The landmark decision struck down a controversial Ontario law that denied agricultural workers the right to become union members. The Supreme Court has said that's unconstitutional. The legal challenge was brought by the UFCW. The Supreme Court's decision has been cheered by the mainstream labour as the dawn of a new age for farm workers, notwithstanding that it doesn't give them the right to bargain collectively or to strike (those rights have been left up to the anti-union Ontario government to legislate).

According to a report in the Toronto Star:

"It's a good decision, and we're very happy with it," said UFCW national director Michael Fraser. He said that even without the full right to strike, the simple right to unionize will put workers in a stronger position to negotiate better contracts, better pay than the minimum wage of $6.80 an hour that many agricultural workers make, better hours, benefits like vacations or severance pay, and workplace protections under occupational health and safety laws.

No doubt the Supreme Court's decision is important, but as far as the impact it will have on the farm workers who are now on the UFCW's organizing agenda, we'll reserve judgment until we see a first contract. We wonder if it will look anything like the UFCW's Swiss Chalet collective agreement. That great feat of bargaining pays minimum wage to many workers, provides no guarantee of hours, no severance pay, no pensions - not much of anything come to think of it. And that's after almost 20 years of union representation and the full right to strike. We can be forgiven our skepticism. Union members or dues units? We're betting on the latter.

The decision is important to us for an altogether different reason. It reinforces the importance of the right of workers to form (not just join) unions, it lays out the evolution of Canadian law about freedom of association as it relates to union membership and it talks about what unions are about why unions are important. This paragraph, drawn from an earlier decision, speaks volumes.

155. As stated by Cory and Iacobucci JJ. in Delisle, supra, at para. 68:
The ability of employees to form and join an employee association is thus crucially linked to their economic and emotional well-being. Membership in employee groups assists the individual member in a great many ways. Simply to join a trade union is an important exercise of an individual's freedom of expression. It is a group that so often brings to the individual a sense of self-worth and dignity. An employee association provides a means of openly and frankly discussing work-related problems without fear of interference or intimidation by the employer. The association provides a means of expressing a collective voice, not only in communicating with the employer, but also in communicating with government, other groups, and the general public. The fundamental importance of the union remains, even though a statute may prohibit the employees from going on strike, or from holding a sit-in. The freedom of employees to participate in an employee association is basic and essential in our society.

What this tells us:

Firstly, it tells us that we have the right to form (not just join) an employee association. This is what a union really is - an association of workers, joining together to pursue common goals and common interests. Notice that the justices didn't say, "a big, unresponsive bureaucracy whose purpose is to get even bigger and generate more revenue". This is because that's not a union.

Then, it tells us that the right to form or join an association of workers is crucial to our economic and emotional well being and that it assists us in a great many ways. Such as: It's an important exercise of an individual's freedom of expression. It brings to the individual a sense of self-worth and dignity. It provides us with a means to openly and frankly discuss work-related problems. It gives us a means to expressing a collective voice. Notice the emphasis on the association of workers and of the benefits that it provides to the individual? We don't think the Supreme Court justices chose their words haphazardly. This is what unions are supposed to be about.

Through this decision, the Supreme Court has defined or, in the least, given us a way of gauging what a union is and, if we apply this gauge to our crop of biz unions and biz partner unions we find that they are not really unions at all. Negotiating the minimum wage doesn't seem consistent with looking after anybody's economic well-being. Bargaining collective agreement clauses that effectively allow management call all the shots doesn't do much for workers' emotional well being either. Blind acceptance of "industry standards" that humiliate, degrade and treat workers as "disposable" robs them of their self-worth and dignity. Lawsuits and smear campaigns targeted at those who dare to be critical, doesn't enhance workers' freedom of expression. There is no place in the backroom or at the luxury resort or on the golf course for workers' collective voice. It's time we took a critical look at what we call a "union". We now have a frame of reference:

  • A union is an association of workers
  • It's important to our economic and emotional well-being
  • It allows us, as individuals, freedom of expression
  • It provides us with a sense of dignity and self-worth
  • It allows us to discuss workplace problems
  • It protects us from intimidation
  • It allows us a means to express our collective voice

This frame of reference provides us with something we can use to measure whether our current union or unions are doing a job for us or just looking after the interests of the elite and their partners. The fact that we can measure, tells us something else that's really important too: that it's OK to be dissatisfied with the unions we've got if they don't measure up. The frame of reference that this decision sets for us is what most people believe unions are about. It's why we have laws granting us rights to belong to them and requiring our employers to recognize and bargain with them. It's why unions have, for the most part, been given free rein to manage their own affairs - because we understand them to be associations of workers and not biz partners.

It may also be that some reformers with a legal orientation can make use of this decision to break some new ground for the cause of union reform. After all, if we have a right to form or join a union as defined above, we ought to have a right to expect it to be a union as defined above. If we find that it isn't, we should have the right - a positive right - to bail out.

Associations of workers vs. big monolithic bureaucracy

The notion of worker associations has been sneered at by the mainstream for decades, mainly because unions that are not big, bureaucratic monoliths would look out of place in the labour country club. Worse still, if they proved themselves to be effective, that would blow a big hole through one of the mainstream's most cherished beliefs: that big bureaucratic monoliths are the best that organized labour has to offer. What the biz-unions and their mainstream cheerleaders never talk about is that the most effective unions of all time were not the big bureaucratic monoliths but the small local organizations that existed decades ago, before there was legislation granting workers the right to organize, bargain and strike. The early unions organized thousands of workers under the most oppressive and desperate conditions. They were worker associations.

Back in the fall, an article we posted for Labour Day, discussed these small local organizations and how they differed from today's ineffective monoliths.

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.

As the year draws to a close we are thinking a lot about this last point. Information-education-communication. The early reformers encouraged it and they did great things. It gave them knowledge and knowledge is power. We encourage it for the same reasons. In the year ahead, we are going even further. HO! HO! HO!

Happy holidays!

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