When I was a union steward for Local 541 of the CAW, representing workers at the ABB plant here in Guelph, I heard nearly every argument you could imagine against unions.
I had my own issues with the union. I didn’t like the culture of unnecessary and unproductive union-management confrontation that did more to hurt our public image than help us. I also had concerns with the growing disconnect between the workers and the union executives who had adopted a lifestyle not unlike the corporate executives they were paid to negotiate with.
Nevertheless, I took my role as a union steward seriously and did my best to protect the rights of the workers.
I am no longer a union member. There is no international brotherhood of freelance journalists that I am aware of, but I still sympathize with the labour movement and recognize the right and, in many cases, the need for workers to organize.
Before we look at the relevance of unions today, it would help to remember the historical contribution they have made to our standard of living.
Guaranteed work hours, guaranteed wages, minimum wage, pay equity, paid holidays, unemployment insurance, workplace health and safety legislation, universal health care, as well as many other benefits and protections we take for granted, were won through the sacrifice of average working people who organized to improve working conditions.
Some say, now that we have these benefits and protections, unions are no longer necessary. My experience suggests otherwise.
Sure, there are ethical employers who respect their workers and pay them a decent wage. Generally, those employers live in the same community as their employees. They shop at the same stores and their kids go to the same schools and play on the same sports teams. In the case of my former employer, ABB, the company had no connection to the community. The senior managers lived in Sweden and Switzerland and had little or no connection to the community here.
Right or wrong, this is the nature of a globalized economy that is driven primarily by the bottom line and anything that interferes with achieving that narrow goal is an obstacle to be removed.
The single biggest obstacle for ABB was the union, as is the case with most multinationals operating in North America. If you can drive down wages and benefits you can increase profits for the company and shareholders.
I suppose we should ask ourselves what is the purpose of an economic system. Is it to generate wealth for the few or is it to benefit the largest number of people and society as a whole?
The gap between the rich and poor is widening and the middle class is all but wiped out. Over the last four decades wages for working-class people in North America have stagnated and even declined in relation to the cost of living. In the same period, the salaries of corporate executives have tripled, quadrupled and, in some cases, risen 1,000 per cent.
Many economists equate this trend with the reciprocal decline in union membership over the same period. Some would argue this is a simplistic explanation for a complex problem but it makes sense to me.
As the average wage declines it becomes harder for working-class people to afford domestically produced goods so we drive manufacturers that can’t afford to relocate in developing countries to make cuts to wages and benefits or go out of business, thus perpetuating the steady decline.
Why do these multinationals relocate to China and other developing countries? It is not to raise the standard of living for the people there. It is to exploit a cheap workforce and take advantage of weak environmental and labour laws.
We are told we are going to have to give up many of the benefits and protections we fought for if we want to compete. Tell me again why we don’t need unions.