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The Place of Unions

November 6, 2016

I grew up in a conservative area.  I probably adopted the prevailing conservative views about trade unions, without even thinking very much about them.  Many companies saw unions as a socialist mechanism to take away their freedom of action.  Many people were opposed to trade unions.  Many people favoured business over labour.

I changed my attitude somewhat when I worked for my father one summer.  He owned a small business.  I remember when one of the customers told him that it must be a wonderful thing to be in business for your self.  This customer called it “being your own boss”.  My father responded by saying:  “Yes, I’m the sales manager.  Yes, I’m the parts manager.  Yes, I’m the cashier behind the counter.  But, I’m also the guy who cleans the toilet in the washroom”.  Being a small businessman didn’t seem so wonderful after that.

I still didn’t think much about trade unions when I got my first full-time job.  It was only when I heard that our group of employees was about to be organized by an international union, that I gave it some thought.  We were the only group that had not already been unionized.  I was initially opposed, but I also wanted to find out more about it.  I remember attending meetings with the union representative where we learned about labour legislation and the union movement.  It all sounded positive and attractive at that time.

Shortly after the organization move began, our administrator notified us that we were supposed to be working longer hours.  We came in Saturday mornings for a few weeks, until the union was able to take legal action.  Labour legislation clearly stated that the employer was not permitted to change working conditions while union certification was in progress.  We went back to our usual working hours.  We were impressed, and disgusted with the administration.  So many of us signed union cards that we were certified without need of a vote.

That was when the real work began.  We had to negotiate for a first contract.  I recall many meetings where we discussed job classification and salary ranges.  At one, a member wondered why we needed classification at all.  He said that we should all be paid the same.  The union representative had to explain to him why people were paid different salaries.  My respect for the union rep grew at that point.  It grew even more when one of our people drew a cartoon for the union newsletter.  It featured Marx and Lenin standing behind the workers as we shouted at the administration.  The union rep declined to publish the cartoon in that form.

I endorse collective bargaining.  It’s the only fair way for the employees and the employer to settle issues that stand between them.  The principle is that the union becomes the bargaining agent for the employees, instead of each employee having to bargain individually for wages and benefits.  I was even on the bargaining committee for our first contract.  It consisted mainly of waiting.  In my case, it consisted entirely of waiting.  Even though I was paid for it, I didn’t much like that aspect of collective bargaining.

In this country, we have the Rand formula for union membership.  It’s a compromise between two unpalatable alternatives.  One is a closed shop, where everybody has to be a member and has to pay dues.  The other is the so-called right to work, where union membership and payment of union dues are both optional.  Under the Rand formula, you can opt out of union membership for reasons of conscience, but you still have to pay union dues.  This is reasonable because you still benefit from the presence of the union as bargaining agent, even if you can’t be a member.

I see that I’ve gradually changed my attitude towards unions, from what it was when I was growing up.  Unions and corporations balance each other.  The union wants higher wages and employment benefits for the employees.  The corporation wants higher profits for the owners or the share holders.   Governments need to provide effective labour legislation to maintain this balance.


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