What adjective best describes unions? Look in the commentary under a union story on any newspaper or television web site and you’ll get the answer. Greedy. The purveyors of the dismal science assure us that we all, individually and collectively, act in our own interests in every decision we make. But, somehow, unions acting in their interests calls down public wrath of a special kind.
Two very contentious strikes that were continuing last week illustrate the point. The Canadian Union of Public Employees at York University and the Amalgamated Transit Union at OC Transpo each have the bad luck of having to inconvenience large numbers of the public. Hence the reaction.
Oddly, when two companies (Petro-Canada and Le Journal de Québec) locked out their employees for over a year to try to achieve concessions in disputes that were recently settled, there was little public display of indignation for their actions. No one outside the union movement called that greed.
There are at least two union issues that I think we need to remember before any of us makes a sweeping moral judgment on the union movement.
First, in Saint John, New Brunswick this month, Moosehead Brewery and the Brewery and Soft Drink Workers have extended their contract for two years because, after negotiation, conciliation and mediation, they could not agree on whether retiree benefits would be sacrificed. Then, as I continued reading the news story, I was struck by something. The people who would be affected by this change were not the ones voting. Only employees hired after ratification would lose benefits. Here were union members fighting so that a different generation could enjoy the same benefits they will. Greedy?
The same battle has been fought over two-tier wage and benefit packages across the country. Sometimes it is successful for the union, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes it can be reversed when economic conditions improve. The fight over defined-benefit pensions is the same, though victories seem to be fewer.
The other fact we need to be reminded of is the way unionization influences wage rates. The difference between union and non-union wages (the “union benefit”) is the aspect we most often see. But there is another. Wages at unionized employers are flatter: there is less difference between the top wage rate and the bottom than there is in non-union facilities. In negotiating contracts, unions act in a way that provides proportionately more benefit to the lowest-paid of their members. Greedy?
It is aggravating enough for someone outside the labour movement (but who recognizes the positive contributions it has made to workplaces and to society generally) to see uninformed arguments and intemperate language being used to vilify unions. It must be even more so for union members.
However, perhaps the crucial test of unions will come when the Big Three have to present their plans to lower labour costs to the Canadian and American governments to qualify for loans. The ability to see past pure militancy and to evaluate economic and political limits is there and we will see it used.