Unions need to reinvent themselves to increase their relevance, support and power

By evoke
September 9, 2013

Unions were born out of the excessive power and abuse wielded by companies a couple of centuries ago.  Unions fought on behalf of their members on two major fronts: wages and working conditions.

Times have changed but unions haven’t and, as such, have been losing support and relevance.  As such, we have long felt unions need to reinvent themselves.  The article below by Glenn Wheeler, which appeared recently as an op-ed piece in the Toronto Star, is an excellent expression of the dire need of unions to figure out what role they are going to play in the future on behalf of their members.

Unions need to get back in touch with members

By: Glenn Wheeler published in the Toronto Star on Sun Sep 01 2013

Chances are, the turnout at this year’s Labour Day parade tomorrow will be heavy with the usual suspects — stewards, union presidents and others of the committed — and light on ordinary workers.

While we unionists squawk about how Stephen Harper and his ilk are beating up on us, we scratch our heads at the extent to which our existing members have tuned us out.

Faced with the dwindling participation of our members, we resort to dolling up our websites and scheduling bargaining unit meetings for lunch time rather than the end of the day, when there’s nothing in the way of the member and the exit.

But the causes of the disengagement — and the responses to it — are more profound. Unions still have not figured out how to effectively translate the benefits of collective action to the individualistically inclined members of the iPhone generation.

We still have not found a compelling answer to the question “what have you done for me lately?”

Yes, we can point to the fact that workers who are unionized on average earn more and have better benefits than their non-union counterparts, but too often those advantages are taken for granted — as something the employer would have provided anyway.

Meanwhile, some of the key priorities and principles of the labour movement serve to alienate younger workers rather than engage them.

Top of the list of turnoffs is seniority, which, as one leading arbitration case says, “is one of the most important and far-reaching benefits which the trade union movement has been able to secure for its members.”

Certainly, seniority is sacred among union militants. But the principle doesn’t sit nearly as well with a generation raised on the importance of individual merit. Rather than something to cherish, younger workers see seniority-based promotion as the root of union-fostered unfairness that rewards oldsters who get the gig merely by sticking around.

At minimum, unions need to sell the idea of seniority more effectively and take a hard look at whether this most precious of union principles needs to be re-examined. Perhaps it’s OK to schedule vacations based on years of service, but not promotions, which should be based on merit, not longevity.

The message to our members must be that we all have to make a personal commitment to professional excellence. Being a loyal union member doesn’t mean being able to coast while we wait for our preordained reward.

As well as encouraging employers to shell out on professional development, unions would do well to spend some of our own money on training our members rather than devoting so much of our dwindling resources to labour arbitration, an ever more costly exercise that in many cases provides more benefit to the private sector lawyers who have come to dominate the scene than it does for the average union member.

No less a figure than Ontario Chief Justice Warren Winkler has said the arbitration system is off-track — it’s too expensive, takes too long and it’s characterized by hearings lengthier and, therefore, more expensive than the particular subject matter warrants.

True, we have many grateful members whose jobs we’ve saved by taking their grievance to arbitration but it is unclear how appreciative their colleagues are of the union’s efforts. “Why should we pay for it with our union dues when someone gets in trouble?” skeptical members ask.

Going forward, unions need to look for a more member-centred approach. Our members are our employers’ workers, and employee engagement (or lack thereof) is an increasing challenge for organizations that complain about the lack of loyalty of today’s workers. Studies have found that workers who like their job take fewer sick days and make fewer on-the-job errors.

They’re also more likely to be better union members. After all, if workers hate their jobs, they’re not likely to be unionist enthusiasts, since going to bargaining unit meetings requires a commitment to the workplace as well as the union.

To unlock the puzzle of union engagement, we have to look at employee engagement generally and think about how we become part of the employer’s solution. This is dangerous talk in union circles because many of our activists have no interest in inspiring workers to feel good about their jobs since this would, in effect, be getting in bed with the boss.

Yes, there are times when our relationship with the employer will be adversarial. But in an era of increasing competition and constant change, unions need to recognize that the employer’s interests in worker engagement are often our own.

Let’s be wise enough to know when it’s time to fight and when it’s not. Employee engagement is an issue on both sides of the table.

Glenn Wheeler is legal counsel to a trade union. The views expressed are his own.

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