This is an interactive version of a shorter editorial comment of mine published this week in the National Post.
I enjoy reading Terrance Corcoran’s opinions in the National Post dealing with labour relations. Honestly. Because they are great fodder for teaching students how to read columnists critically. You always know what Corcoran is going to say even before you read the column, because it’s always the same, and it’s virtually certain that the villain in the article will be a union, a union leader, a supporter of collective bargaining, or laws that permit employees to opt for collective bargaining. Employees are always said to be better off bargaining for themselves (without a union), unions are corrupt and greedy, and employers are helpless, law-abiding citizens doing the best they can under a repressive legal system that undermines them at every corner.
But even I was a little surprised to see Corcoran presenting Wal-Mart as the champion of decent employment practices in his most recent column. You gotta be kidding me! Wal-Mart, the poor misunderstood employer? Now that takes some creative writing.
In Corcoran’s strange world, Wal-Mart, a company that rakes in billions of dollars a year in profits, is a hero for convincing a Quebec arbitrator to allow it to keep its employees’ wages at slightly above minimum wage, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union is a villain, for obtaining for the employees “only” a 30 cents per hour raise.
How rarely we hear anyone—except Wal-Mart itself, of course–describe Wal-Mart’s employment policies in such a positive light. This is a company that an American court recently found violated employment laws “2 million times”, and that has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and settlements in claims relating to wage discrimination and unpaid wages. In Canada, Wal-mart has been found in violation of labour laws repeatedly.
But Corcoran argues that it is the bully unions that should be chastised, and not Wal-mart. Why? Because the union promised the employees more than it actually was able to obtain from the arbitrator, for one thing. And, for another, it was certified on the basis that a majority of the Wal-mart employees signed a card saying they wanted the union to represent them, rather than by winning a vote.
In fact, the model worked as it should. It gave the workers an opportunity to see what a union could do for them. If the employees are not happy with what the union was able to obtain in the first agreement, they can decide not to give the union another chance by decertifying them. If they prefer that very generous model of employment relations offered by Wal-Mart to its non-union employees, they can opt to go back to that model before the next round of bargaining.
That is why there is nothing ‘undemocratic’ about the card-check model that is in place in a variety of Canadian jurisdictions and is being considered in the U.S. If a majority of workers sign a contract saying they want the union to be given a chance to bargain something worthwhile, the union is given that chance. Ultimately, the union is measured by its ability to make gains in the bargaining that follows. If it can’t do that, it will have a short spell as the employees’ representative.
In fact, as anyone knowledgeable in labour relations knows, unions rarely make huge strides in first contracts. Improvements come incrementally, round by round. In this case, the union not only won a modest raise, it won a grievance procedure that will allow employees to challenge management decisions they perceive to be arbitrary or based in favoritism. And the union will ensure that Wal-Mart actually complies with existing employment standards and human rights laws, something this company has shown it has a difficult time doing. So, its unfair to suggest that the union achieved nothing here.
And ask yourself whether, in these difficult times, the people of Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec would be better off if Wal-Mart employees earned a little more money in wages so they can buy their children clothes, pay for daycare, go to restaurants, etc., and thereby help fuel the local economy, or if Wal-Mart’s profits increase from, say, $3.4 billion to 3.41 billion?
Of course, Mr. Corcoran has argued in his column before that unions that win ‘good’ settlements for their members are to blame for the crumbling of the economy, the failures of government, and various others evils. Here, he chastises a union for not bargaining a better settlement for its members. That’s the great thing about ideologues—they can take any facts and make them fit their skewed worldview.