The thoughts/ideas expressed in this blog are the sole responsibilty of the author. Links to outside resources do not constitute agreement with or endorsement of any of the content of those sites, they are there for reference purposes only.

If you'd like to contact me, email


Mark McCaw ~ twitter's @bigpicguy

Author of "Insights Inside a Mind" ~ blogging the big picture

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Truth About Unions

     It seems, during an unusual period of unrest, a good opportunity to discuss the subject of...gasp...unions!!

     For the purposes of this dialogue, I'll feel free to assume those reading are not union members, however, if you do belong to a trade union or professional association I welcome your comments on my thoughts.

     When thinking about unions, I began to ask what the average person (who wasn't an avid researcher) would know about them. What would be the source of knowledge of the union movement (and the people who make it up) available to an individual? Someone not totally oblivious to things that happen in the real world, the one outside of Farmville.

     My opinion? Much of what we "know" (sic) is probably influenced by print, online, and broadcast media. Beyond that, what most people think they know about unions is secondarily influenced by other factors, such as: words and actions of Government, relatives, friends or others you know who belong to such an organization, or your own personal experiences (either in the context of you belonging or encounters with workers during a job action).

     Starting from that framework seems to be fair, it seems to be setting the bar fairly low but I'm sure those with a little (or lot) more knowledge will bear with me. At this point, my advice to any reasonable person would be: forget your preconceived notions of whether unions are good or bad and read my story of personal experience. I would greatly appreciate anyone who would leave a comment and let me know if this post at least makes you think about your perception when you finish reading.

     For the first two-thirds of my life, including just over half my working career, I never worked in a unionized workplace. I will freely admit I subscribed to a lot of stereotypical thoughts about unions and unionized workers. Words that would come to my mind were greed, dishonesty, laziness, nothing really very good but to this day, the majority of coverage of anything to do with unions or unionized workers continually portrays any worker(s) engaging in job action as the villain of the story. Think about the coverage of the current strike action being undertaken by members of CUPW, representing Canada's postal workers. Think about most coverage of work stoppages, whether they involve a strike action initiated by employees, or a lockout by the employer, and the first thing you will think about is the wage they make or out-of-the-ordinary benefits or pensions, etc. I think that's a true statement. I do not see or hear media coverage which discusses how profitable the corporation has been historically, I don't recall hearing many stories about how many people have been hurt in the name of those profits, or whether the employer has a history of treating workers poorly or tolerating intolerable behavior, etc. This is the first great sin of unions, greed, not real greed, but the appearance of greed because stories are always slanted that way, and to a great extent, anger and derision from those who have no ability to bargain with their employer to try to get fair compensation for what they do daily to help the company succeed. Corporate executives make huge salaries and topping it off by paying themselves hundreds of thousands, even millions in bonuses, none of them go without benefits and if they get fired they already have pre-arranged massive payouts to themselves and the other top execs on top of pensions you and I can only fantasize about, yet you can't get past the fact that union person makes 20 bucks an hour. Don't dismiss what I'm saying, just think about what people rant on about when someone does go on strike. I've certainly heard people say (numerous times) "Fire them all" but you never hear them suggest the management of the company be fired. How about "I'd work twice as hard for half the money" yet no one rants that if execs stopped collecting bonuses the company could improve pay and benefits and have money left to invest in equipment, training, and new employees. I seriously do not think I have ever heard anyone, in my entire life, lay the blame for angry workers on the management/owners of a company. Now that I've (hopefully) had a chance to let you see reality in the mirror, you may have more of an appetite for some real truth.

     At one time, I was very much anti-union. I admit to buying all of the standard criticisms above and probably many more. If you aren't organized, or never have been, it is easy to blame it on the workers, after all, executives aren't marching with crudely lettered signs, asking for wage increases when they make twice what you do. Sometimes you know union people who brag about sleeping at work or having a co-worker punch in/out for them when they were playing golf or any one of a number of fairly deplorable things. We fail to relate this to other, non-union workplaces which also harbour all kinds of bad or lazy workers. Chances are, you've worked with some of them yourself. This was the kind of information I had about unions, I was vocal in my opposition, at one time mounted a successful campaign to deny a union in a workplace where a majority of employees had signed union cards. I just knew they were evil and I didn't want any part of them.

     Anyone who has ever worked in media knows in order to advance in the profession, you have to haul up stakes and move on a fairly regular basis. When my wife died and I was left to raise my infant daughter, I decided it would not be in her best interests to be uprooted so I began to look outside of the industry and find something more stable, even though I knew it would mean I would earn substantially less starting out in a new field, it was something I felt I had to do. I eventually settled for a job in the transportation industry.

     When I first started my new job, it was quite a culture shock. The pay was relatively crappy, the benefits weren't great but the pension plan was good. I was hired along with a couple of hundred others when the company decided to consolidate several offices across the country into a single centre operating out of Atlantic Canada. Our first surprise was our first pay, when we found out we were being paid 65 cents an hour less than they told us at the "job fair" they held. I'm the type that rarely has issues in the workplace as I have no problem standing up for myself and I'm not afraid to tell them where to stick their job if need be.

     After a litany of problems with management and working conditions, a number of the girls at work were pursuing union certification. I was approached to become part of the organizing group but I was not in favour of unions so I declined. I also wouldn't sign a card, however, they managed to secure enough signatures to get certified and for the first time in my life I became a union employee. Once the certification was recognized, I thought about things long and hard and came to the conclusion if the union was going to run things I should get involved. Reluctantly I signed a union card and officially became a Teamster. I put my name forward as a shop steward and was elected by a wide margin. I initially did it for selfish reasons, if someone was going to be responsible for protecting my interests and negotiating remuneration and working conditions, I wanted to be part of it.

     Over the last 16 years I have been constantly re-elected to my position as steward, labour relations representative and negotiator. I now have an almost totally different view of unions, where I once assumed they were some kind of curse (because that is the overwhelming preponderance of propaganda tells us) I now realize unions do far more good than bad, and their flaws are no worse than those of the companies we all work for. From dealing with grievance procedures to arbitration to negotiations and conciliation sessions, I've been there. I've negotiated several multi-year multi-million dollar contracts and have never once recommended                 a strike. I've gone head to head in some knock-down drag-out battles with corporate vice presidents and directors, I've won some important battles on behalf of co-workers and put up with hard feelings and surreptitious punishment from management for things that never would have involved or affected me in any way, it's part of the job. I routinely have people who love me one minute and take a samurai sword to my back the next. I've been called every name in the book, alternatively despised by managers at the same time I've been accused of being on the company's side. It's a thankless job, but I've learned a lot and I'm no shrinking violet and accept the concept of anger needing a scapegoat.

     I'd like for a moment, before I go on, to stop for a bit of a reality check. This is where I want you to 100% honest with yourself. Put yourself into the frame of mind of what this blog post is all about. I'd ask you to consider my questions, answer them honestly, read the rest of the article and let me know in the comments section if you found this helpful.

     Tell me honestly you neither want nor deserve more pay. I think it would be rare to find anyone who would tell me they are completely happy with their compensation and a raise never crosses their mind. I don't know many people with a benefit package that just can't be improved upon. Perhaps I'd be willing to make a large wager that you would not turn your employer down if they offered to pay for your benefits. Not going out on a limb here to say if a company wants to pay part or all of your contributions to a retirement plan most people wouldn't get angry and refuse.

     Just considering those few factors above, I ask you, am I being reasonable in assuming (if you are being honest with yourself) you would agree with that paragraph? If you've been honest with yourself on those questions, here is another important one to think about, one I believe the honest answer will make you realize a re-think of your attitude toward unions is required.

     My question at this point is: How many times have you been angry due to employees taking a job action? How often in a labour dispute do you blame the unions, employees, or both? Be honest. Do you think it's reasonable to think all disputes are the fault of the employees? Do they never do anything wrong in your workplace? Can you say you have never disagreed with management? That you and your co-workers have been treated fairly at all times? Do you seriously believe because someone gives you a few dollars that anything and everything they say is right? More than anything, people get pissed off because the first thing they hear is a bunch of lazy bums who make 20 bucks an hour and have extra vacation and sick time and benefits are on strike, You will also be immediately given the impression it is all about greed, that every strike is about more pay and more benefits. Unions don't only have to battle for their members, they also have to battle to get a grain of truth reported in the media, and they are constantly fighting against the stereotypes we have been indoctrinated with. Generally, the only people who tell the truth about unions, are the unions themselves, and most of us have been taught or encouraged to see them as something mysterious and evil.

     Having spent half of my working life in non-unionized, mostly salaried positions, and the other half as an active member of a collective bargaining unit, I want to speak to you about the real truth. I'd like to think it is an unbiased truth as I have no difficulty taking care of myself when it comes to my choice of employment. Union or no union, I can be comfortable in either environment.

     You rarely hear any positive press about unions. People will hate unions even though unions are the one reason you don't have working conditions like people in third world or repressive countries. If workers had not organized and stood together how could you possibly think our lot in life would be any better than that of Mexicans or many Central and South Americans, Africans, Chinese and the litany of other countries where it's routine to work 72 or more hours a week to earn your 20 dollars. It happens routinely, daily, and again being honest with yourself, that's the reason big companies are shipping jobs to those types of countries. I don't mind if you blame this one on unions, I'm glad I don't have to survive on 20 bucks a week. All of the major gains in wages, working conditions and especially health and safety can be directly traced to the union movement and the everyday people willing to fight to have a say in their working conditions and a more fair share of the wealth generated by their hard work.

     The thing no one really seems to do a good job of explaining is the purpose of a union. Unions are about far more than money and goodies for all. When you negotiate a contract, money and benefits are the last thing you talk about. Most of your negotiating time is used dealing with the rules you live by. Once you have worked in a unionized environment, and especially if you participate in union affairs, you come to the realization it is a good thing for both parties when your workplace has an actual, enforceable rule book, just like pro athletes do! The advantage in my workplace is I know the rules I have to adhere to and I know what responsibilities the company has to me. If I don't know the rules, they are there, printed in a book where I can look them up or I can ask a steward for guidance.

     Clear rules are important. No one can make them up as they go along, and the same rules apply to people the managers like as they do to those who are not among the favourites. Even among workers there are people you like, those you're indifferent to, and others you dislike. Why would you think your humanity is any different than that of your managers? They're people too, and we all have our own tastes, opinions, and biases. There is absolutely no truth to the story you can't be fired from a union job. It is absolutely true it is more difficult to fire someone from a union job. This is not because corrupt unions are trying to protect bad people and slackers of all sorts, au contraire mon ami, the reason it is harder to fire someone from a union job is because the company must have just cause and be able to prove it. I have, in my capacity as a shop steward, dealt with cases where employees have been fired. I am satisfied the company had good reason to act as they did. No one gets fired because they're unlikeable, or they pissed the boss off, or any one of the dozens of reasons I have heard from people I know who don't have the protection of a union. Yes, we all work under the labour laws of the land, however, most people are almost completely unaware of the minimal rights they do have, and even less of those will actually exercise their right to file a complaint when their employer breaks a law by not allowing them to take breaks or not allowing a lunch period or even making them work "off the clock". After all, even if you have a 100% valid complaint and win your case, you can bet the first time you make a mistake your ass will be fired, and if that doesn't happen, they'll eliminate the position you've held for 15 years and lay you off while keeping the 2 teenagers and the boss' cousin who has been sleeping there for 5 years.

     The reason most companies do not want a union has nothing to do with excessive wages or benefits. Unions are just groups of workers who are just like any group of co-workers, the sole exception being they have a workplace where they don't operate under "every man for himself" rules. Companies do not want unions because it means they can't operate any way they feel like. When my friends share stories with me of things that happen where they work I can't imagine most of the crap that happens in all of the other autocracies on a daily basis.

     I'm not saying the union environment is utopia. I do, however, believe the good things about unions far outweigh the bad. In any workplace with more than a couple of workers you will come across some who are overachievers, others who consistently do a good job, some who are content to just be competent, and a minority who are lazy or dishonest or just don't care about their job or their co-workers. That is a false label used to great effect, in that it happens in your workplace and you can ignore it for years but the minute a union goes on strike it's because they are lazy crooks, or they've been locked out by their company because they are greedy and unreasonable people. Untrue, but these stereotypes are hauled out every time there is a work stoppage and people tend to agree because these kinds of talking points are always used after they publish the union wage which people always think is too much, ignoring huge corporate profits, large executive salaries and massive bonuses. The people who make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year somehow become the victims of people who make something more than minimum wage.

     Do you finally see something wrong with the overall picture? I have a bit of a problem with corporations and the well-to-do having all the advantages in society. We cut their taxes and allow big corporations to salt away 83 billion dollars that the government insisted companies need to create jobs. Jobs for bankers? You will insult and put down ordinary people who would at least like a share of the profits they worked to produce. You are willing to spew hate at someone who wants an extra 2 bucks an hour spread over 4 years from a company that could easily afford to pay it and still enjoy multi-million or billion dollar profits. It is all a by-product of a decades-long propaganda war. Corporations v the little guy and for some reason, the corporations are made out to be the white knight and your next door neighbour is Atilla the Hun.

     The majority of union bargaining units have never had a strike or lockout. Union workers know that job actions are serious and don't make those decisions lightly. It's not like you're getting a paycheque or EI during a strike or lockout. You still have the same bills, so a majority strike vote and actually going out means most of the workers feel strongly enough about something to risk losing everything they've worked for if the stoppage drags on. I think a lot of the anger directed at unions has been exaggerated because most public-sector workers are unionized, the number of public-sector unions is large and diverse and pretty much guarantees there is always a group of people who provide a service or services your tax dollars pay for in a position where their old contract has expired (in this case the old contract applies until a new one is negotiated) or their current contract is soon to expire and they are actively negotiating. This gives the appearance "those government workers" are always on strike. This is also untrue, but I appear to be the only one mentioning it. People on the best days have difficulty understanding which services are provided by municipal government, which are provincial responsibilities, or what the federal government does. That means at any given time at one or more levels of government, someone could end up withdrawing a service that not only inconveniences all of us, it fuels the false notion government workers go on strike every time their contract is up. It simply isn't true.

     The next time you're about to go off on a worker because you are angry or envious of the compensation they receive, be honest with yourself and admit someone on the opposite side negotiated with those people and both sides have to agree and sign the contract to put the stamp on it to make it legal. I'd be willing to bet if your employer offered you the exact same rules and compensation as one of these unions you would not tell them it's too generous so you'd have to decline. You would take it. I'm positive you would. It seems odd you will forgive wealthy and famous people for almost anything yet be eternally angry at joe nobody because his job pays better than yours.

     Hopefully you'll begin to understand your anger is horribly misplaced. If you, by chance, happen to gain employment in a unionized workplace, you too will come to understand you've spent your whole life eating the bullshit corporations and the media feed you every time there is a labour dispute...Or maybe you like that taste in your mouth. The people you are hating on are your friends, neighbours, even relatives.

     The current government can vote itself all kinds of great raises and benefits and only work a couple of months a year. Owners and executives can take home millions of dollars every year and you bitch because someone makes a few dollars an hour more than you do. No unionized workers are getting rich, and if you think they should be the target of your nastiness, you should go take a look in the mirror because you will know what stupid looks like.

1 comment:

  1. Once you go unionized (and its a good union), you can't go back. The union at ualberta did amazing things for the staff in our office (including protecting us in a horrible legal battle where someone was sexually assaulting and bullying staff members) and I wouldn't have it any other way. Vive l'union!