The Canadian Labour Congress, the main umbrella organization of unions in the country, held its triennial convention in Vancouver from May 9 to 13. As delegates met, some pundits argued unions are no longer relevant.
Plenty of evidence suggests otherwise. Much has changed in the world of work in recent decades. However, the basic realities that have led many workers to form unions haven't gone away.
One is that workers who bargain as a group with their employer about wages, benefits and rights on the job have more power than if they negotiate individually. That's why unionized workers make seven to 14 per cent more than comparable workers who aren't unionized. This advantage is greatest for those who need it most, women, visible minorities, young people and others who are more likely to be lower paid.
Unionized workers are also much more likely to have a workplace pension plan as well as medical and dental benefits.
Something else that hasn't changed is the interests of employers and workers aren't the same, and employers have a lot more power in the workplace and in society. Unions are still the main organizations workers have to defend their independent interests.
But unions are facing major challenges. Most public sector workers remain unionized. However, the union presence among private sector workers continues to decline. In 2010, only 17.5 per cent of private sector workers were covered by a union collective agreement, continuing the decades-long shrinkage from a high of about one in three. This decline has been driven by the loss of jobs in unionized companies and the creation of many new jobs by non-unionized firms.
Another challenge is visible minorities -- who make up a growing proportion of the population -- are unionized at a lower rate than white workers.
The belief that unionized public sector workers are somehow responsible for higher government deficits is also a challenge. There is no evidence to support this idea -- the main cause is the global economic crisis, which reduced revenue at the same time the federal government engaged in stimulus spending to avert an even-deeper recession. But governments intent on attacking public services in the name of cost-cutting are only too glad to see unions cast in a negative light.
Some workers question the relevance of unions because many unions, faced with more aggressive employer demands, have been losing ground in recent years. "You don't need a union to go backwards," is an old union saying. When union leaders accept employer demands for concessions -- giving up past gains -- without a fight, some workers inevitably wonder if the union matters. This attitude can be reinforced when union officials don't encourage the widest possible democratic participation in union affairs.
In short, unions are vitally important but face daunting challenges. To meet them more effectively, unions need to start to change in significant ways. Unions can become stronger defenders of the common good by taking vigorous action to prevent ordinary people -- who didn't cause the economic crisis -- from being made to pay for it through job losses, reduced wages, weaker benefits, increasingly stressful work lives and fewer, lower-quality public services.
By forging closer relationships with immigrant communities and indigenous people -- from which growing numbers of wage earners will come in the years ahead -- unions can become more effective at taking up their issues on and off the job.
Increasing democratic membership control within unions can increase member participation and enhance the ability of workers to make gains through unions.
If unions start to change in these and other ways, they can become even more relevant to 21st century workers.
David Camfield teaches labour studies at the University of Manitoba. His book Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers'
Movement has recently been published by
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