I attended an interesting talk at Ryerson last night which was about the implications of the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in Fraser. The Fraser decision has been discussed to death, so while interesting, there weren’t many new revelations at last night’s talk about what the case means. The most interesting discussion, in my opinion, was not really related to Fraser at all. It was about how unions need to adapt their strategies and work hard to sell their services to workers.
Ken Delaney, who was Assistant to the Director of the United Steelworkers in Canada until recently, is one of those very smart labour leaders who spends a lot of time thinking about these issues. Ken said last night that the labour movement in Canada is on a trajectory towards the fate of the U.S. labour movement, which presently stands around 6% membership in the private sector. In Canada, the private sector unionization rate is around 17%, but the trend is downward rather than upwards. According to Ken, the Canadian labour movement will not be saved by the Supreme Court or the Charter, or even new legislation. Rather, the labour movement needs to make itself relevant to Canadian workers and overcome a serious image problem. I hope I have summarized his position fairly.
That is a position shared by many in the labour movement, especially those most forward thinking. I happen to share that view, for the most part. Us lawyer types can think of all sorts of laws that could make union organizing easier, and collective bargaining a stronger institution. There is no great mystery about how laws could be amended to facilitate greater levels of collective bargaining. Trouble is, our political leaders have no interest at all in enacting those laws, and there is no great public pressure on them to do so. Obviously, corporations and employer lobby groups want nothing to do with collective bargaining, so they have effectively persuaded politicians and much of the public that laws that facilitate collective bargaining will cause business to flee.
People today spend a lot of time whining about income inequality and their declining standard of living, and we know that collective bargaining is one of the surest means of putting more money in the hands of the middle class. It is no coincidence that the countries with the highest levels of unionization also have the lowest levels of income inequality. Yet, while many people think that growing income inequality in Canada is a serious problem, the labour movement still ranks very low in public opinion polls. In short, unions have a serious image problem to overcome. Canadian union leaders know this, as evident in this speech by Canadian Labour Congress leader Ken Georgetti.
What can unions do to improve their image?
Good question. People have been debating this for decades. I certainly don’t have the answers. What do you think?
How about this idea, for starters: The Canadian labour movement–perhaps through the Canadian Labour Congress–should develop a subsidized dental and health insurance scheme that would be available to any worker who becomes a member of a legitimate Canadian union, and then advertise the scheme to death. Millions of Canadian workers lack basic dental coverage and health insurance (prescription drugs, for example), and this is a source of great stress and financial hardship. Many employers can’t afford to provide these plans, or they simply choose not to provide their employees with one. The labour movement has the buying power to create a comprehensive national insurance scheme that could be made available to any worker that is a member of a union.
By “member”, I don’t mean only people who are in a bargaining unit at their workplace. Many, many workers who might wish to be represented by a union at their workplace never get that chance, because our system is based on “majority” rules. I mean any person who becomes a member of a legitimate Canadian union–who signs a union membership card and pays the monthly fee (union due)–would be covered by the insurance scheme. This would put the labour movement in a position of providing an important service to the community. People who never found any reason to care about or support unions would suddenly see a personal and direct benefit being provided by unions. For this reason, governments should be supportive, and should be pressure to provide subsidies to the scheme.
Many unions already provide services like this to their own members–I know the Steelworkers have a subsidized dental plan for members, but I think it only covers Steelworker members who are in a certified bargaining unit. The Labourers provide all sorts of services to their members, including immigration legal advice and training. This is all great.
But what about a national, labour movement insurance scheme for any worker who joins a union, whether or not they are in a certified bargaining unit? Is this something that could make unions relevant to more people? I know I am not the first person to think of this, but I have wondered why I don’t see the labour movement aggressively advertising these sorts of services to all Canadians. As our governments cut and cut public services, an opportunity emerges for unions to provide services beyond their core membership. Do we already have something like this? Is it a stupid idea?
Any other ideas about what unions should be doing to improve their image?