Unions Are So Last Century

For all my liberal leanings, I have absolutely no patience for labour unions. Leading up to the late-20th century, unions undoubtedly advanced health, labour, and safety standards in the workplace. But now, after more than a decade into the 21st century, unions are more concerned with protecting incompetence and demanding higher wages and benefits than they are with advocating for fairness and safety in the workplace for employees. Trying to performance manage (aka discipline), let alone, fire an incompetent union employee is a huge undertaking which begins a long, drawn out process that wastes everyone’s time and money. It only gets worse when accusations of unfair labour practices and wrongful termination start getting thrown around. If you’re consistently terrible at your job, you’re fired. And, honestly, if it takes months upon months of back-and-forth arguments and counter-arguments to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, perhaps it’s time to rethink unions altogether. 

The power unions used to have over companies has largely evaporated. Governments have legislated workplace protections and, in this day and age, consumers demand immediate gratification and are quick to switch to an alternative product or service to meet their needs (goodbye brand loyalty). Really, a union workers’ strike draws the ire of consumers and inflicts damage to the company’s brand image which could very well lead to future layoffs depending on the ready availability and comparability of market substitutes. And, if the work stoppage goes on for an extended period of time or the company can’t recover enough to generate sufficient revenue, it won’t be long before there aren’t any jobs to be had nevermind wages to squabble over. So, ultimately, the only thing union workers gain by striking is the the opportunity to update their resumes and look for new jobs in a slow economy.

Take, for instance, the latest worker strikes by employees of Canada Post and Air Canada. Both companies face high fuel costs, ballooning pension liabilities, and reduced demand for its services therefore less revenue (Canada Post has seen a 17% reduction in lettermail volume in the past 5 years whereas airlines saw a decrease in passenger traffic due to the global recession). The demands of the unions center around guaranteed wage increases and unsustainable defined benefit pension plans (DBPP) for both current and future employees. The response of the companies have been smaller guaranteed wage increases, starting wage rollbacks for new employees (Canada Post only), and a move to defined contribution pension plans (DCPP) for future employees (current employees can keep their DBPPs). As an aside, the difference between the two plans: a DBPP is a guaranteed future monthly payout (indexed for inflation), funded and managed by the company, and the DCPP is a guaranteed current contribution to an investment fund (subject to market fluctuations), funded by the company but managed by the employee. The key piece is that the company contributes money it has today under a DCPP rather than having to guess how much money it will have to spend in the future to meet its DBPP commitments. Anyway, back to this example.

Canada Post and Air Canada have both made concessions but have said they won’t be able to afford to continue to pay defined benefit pensions or support the demanded wage increases in an unsure marketplace. These are fair and valid points considering we don’t live in a nanny state and capitalism is what drives the world’s markets. The union’s response: sorry, not good enough, everybody strike. Consumers by and large appear to side with the companies and are willing to wait for their mail or change their air travel provider to one with customer service agents. I’m one of those on the side of the companies and I’d even go one step further: fire all of the unionized employees and then offer to rehire them with the caveat that they all come back as non-union employees under the new wage structures and benefit plans. Some may view this as harsh but it’s what’s needed to continue to run businesses that actively employ people. Don’t like it? Fine, don’t work there.

3 comments on “Unions Are So Last CenturyAdd yours →

  1. Since you’ve decided to comment on something I have been involved with first on a volunteer level for 5 years, and now on a professional level for a year and a half, I feel the need to weigh in.

    I have been a union steward in 2 unions, elected offical in 2, and involved in the politics of 3, and now I’m employed by one. I’ve testified at the arbitration level in a case where an Alberta arbitrator ruled the company clearly targetted the worker because they were pro-union. I’ve been personally tagetted by management for my union involvement in 2 work sites and have successfully fought unjust discipline in both, for myself, and for my co-workers. I’ve also seen cases of justified discipline stick to many, many employees. Including termination.

    First, it’s actually very consistent with liberal (both small l and big L) values to dislike unions. Unions go beyond liberal notions of equality of opportunity and push for real equality. That’s a longer discussion, but if you’re interested, I’d recommend reading “From Human Rights to Civil RIghts” which outlines Martin Luther King Jr’s views on economics and politics, his rejection of liberalism, and his staunch trade unionism.

    You make some interesting statements and I wonder – how much time have you or anyone you speak regulary to spent volunteering as a union steward or working for a union?

    For me, it’s a good portion of my circle of friends, and let me tell you, protecting incompetence is not our chief concern, nor are we able to do so. In fact, if an employer is unable to fire an incompetent worker, they themselves are guilty of protecting incompetence, namely, an incompetent manager that doesn’t understand the collective agreement or labour law.

    As to Government legislated workplace protections, these are silently violated on a constant and consistent basis. Ask any unionist who has been involved in an organizing drive trying to win protection for health care workers or retail workers about the intimidation tactics and firing of workers that occurs when people try to get a union. None of this goes away once the union is in place and a good union local relies on a small army of volunteers to police the collective agreement as well as your much lauded government standards.

    Workers gain a lot by striking. A backbone and dignity being chief in my mind before wages and benefits, but on that front I’ll tell you about a group of people I’m working with right now in Red Deer.

    The David Thompson Health Region made plans a few years ago to close down 2 publicly run nursing homes in Red Deer, represented chiefly by AUPE, my current employer.

    A lot of public attention was drawn to the facilities as the closure became more immediate in 2009, and AUPE agreed to lend its voice to the public outcry about the loss of much valued public fixtures in Red Deer. I was the main organizer assigned to our campaign to oppose the closures.

    In the end we were unsuccessful, but we were quite easily able to convince the people of Red Deer that keeping the facilities running was in everyones best interest. This was bolstered by the fact that the residents and their families agreed with our position and supported our cause.

    The 2 public facilities were replaced by a larger private facilitiy, Extendicare Michener Hill. Staff that were not completely disillusioned with continued work in health care applied for jobs there and took pay cuts as large as 30% to do so.

    Like any new facility, they did not have a union in place. AUPE was specifically sought out to organize the facility, which I was again involved in. After the facility was organized, notice to bargain was served in November of 2010. These people still do not have a contract because Extendicare refuses to make an offer comparable to what other health care providers in Red Deer pay. (Our staff are not even asking for a complete equivalent to Alberta Health Services).

    During this time we have had a vicious whisper campaign carried out on the worksite where people are told they could be fired for voting to strike, or temporary foreign workers could be deported. Both of these are untrue and AUPE has filed a complaint with the labour board to attempt to get a resolution.

    So beyond wanting to see care workers paid industry standard (assuming this would be a concern for yourself), why should enthusiastic capitalists like yourself care?

    Well, in a market society, competition exists. In this case, labour competition. What this means is that given the choice, health care workers in Red Deer, and especially experienced health care workers, who often have 2 or even 3 jobs to pay the bills, will take shifts at their jobs at Alberta Health Services or Bethany Care over their shifts at Extendicare. Weekend and evening shifts where premiums are below industry standard suffer the worst and having over a dozen staff missing on a weekend shift is not uncommon.

    This is compromising the care of the people in this facility.

    If we are successful in securing a contract these people want and deserve, it will help allieviate some of the huge problems occuring for senior citizens in Red Deer.

    Because of these problems, our staff actually have residents and family members telling them they should strike, because the employer isn’t budging. We held a successful protest in Red Deer in early June where we were joined by staff and family on our picket line, and we’ll keep pushing.

    If you want to buy me a beer some time I can tell you about another campaign I’ve been involved with, the one to stop the closure of Alberta Hospital Edmonton. I could also tell you more about the individual cases I’ve heard of, read about, and participated in where managers did everythin from follow staff into the bathroom to ensure they were actually peeing as stated, to harassing a woman for taking time off for chemotherapy. After I’m done, I’d love to hear you tell me why unions are so last century.

  2. Speaking of performance management. I know of a government owned bank filled with a slew of lazy and incompetent people who sit around doing nothing or spend the majority of their week “working from home” (big air quotes). The company has no problem wasting away millions of dollars. How far behind and over budget is that project anyway? They don’t even have a union and its impossible to get fired! LOL

  3. I love the aupe commercials showing folks working at 4am because they “work so hard” and therefore the union is just like the rest of the private sector. Hahahha. Thanks aupe for spending millions trying justify yourself and the fact that you force people to pay your union dues. Fact is 99% of all aupe jobs are garbage and if you actually work for a union you are seriously morally corrupt.

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