Friday, July 11, 2008

CPSRENEWAL.CA Weekly: The Role of Unions

I set out this week with every intention of attempting to flesh out the role of public sector labour unions in the renewal process, and where and how they might fit into the future of the Public Service (PS). This column has in fact been rewritten numerous times but in the end I have nothing but questions.

My point of departure for this topic is my contention that PS unions should, by default, have a vested interest in the renewal process, considering that their memberships are dependent upon the hiring and retention practices of the employer.

My uncertainty regarding the role of unions stems from the PS’s difficulty in facing modern pressures (e.g. use of technology, work flow, time sensitivities, etc), and the demographic and generational challenges it has yet to overcome.

Can a collective agreement really reign in the blackberry?

Can it address the chronically slow pace at which the PS is moving to adopt new technologies?

Do recent immigrants and/or recent post-secondary graduates (two prime groups for PS recruitment efforts) feel any connection to organized labour?

Not Going Away

All of the above being said, while unionization remains firmly entrenched within the Public Service, I think that unions have recognized that they need to ensure their relevance moving forward. As evidence, I offer an excerpt from the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s website:

Have unions outlived their usefulness?


The current reality for most non-unionized workers demonstrates this clearly.

The belief that individuals can do better for themselves is the myth, not the reality.

There is strength in numbers. Why do you think employers fight so hard to be "union-free"!

Unions do make a difference...

I am not sure to whom this plea is aimed. Generation Y has been closely watched by parents, teachers and the media. Gen Y grew up in a fragmenting popular culture where diversity and self expression was the norm. They became adults in booming economies with shrinking populations, and, as a result, have always been highly valued. The rhetoric of the above statement – the combative relationship between the employer and employee – fails to resonate with Gen Y. Gen Y has too strong a sense (whether warranted or not) of its own potential and importance for them to think that “belief that individuals can do better for themselves is a myth”.

In the Media

This past Monday, 200 unionized Viterra employees went on strike. The issue seems to be that workers have rejected a 27% raise over the next 5 years, where 6% would be guaranteed this year and the remaining 21% would be tied to employee performance over the next 4 years.

I only mention it because providing employment for life (i.e. indeterminate status) and pay increases tied to tenure rather than performance effectively makes one’s performance largely irrelevant. Public service executives have bonuses tied to performance. Private sector companies have been rewarding performance since before the dawn of time.

A generation of workers that is extremely confident in its ability to be top performers, not to mention has significant pre-government experience in performance pay based employment, has no reason to be concerned with performance based pay. Listen to people chatting around the water cooler, one of the biggest issues our generation has in the workplace is poor performers who maintain employment not because of their proficiency but despite it. In this example, a collective agreement can be seen as a hindrance to their own aspirations rather then a guarantor of certain (self evident) rights in the workplace.

Still, there are other examples of union activity that seem to provide counter examples.

From Personal Experience

Speaking now from personal experience, I have spent most of my own career working in unionized environments without ever taking an interest in them. In fact, I have been a member of a union for the 7 of the last 8 years without ever actually getting involved. I told one of my colleagues about how I was struggling to write this column. He could only offer me a piece of (humorous) cynicism, “So far my union manages to squeeze $35/month from me while delaying my 'real' salary for 3 years which probably holds less-than-favourable implications for my previous income tax filings. Gee thanks.”

In my recent conversation with new public servants, I brought up the subject of unions. Being from the same occupational group, we share the same union. None of my colleagues could name it, had been contacted by it since they started their employment, or knew how to contact the union should the need arise. After our conversation I sent them information on how to contact the union. However, the only reason I knew how to do it was that I happened to see a black and white print out tacked to a bulletin board in one of the elevator bays. It indicated that if I didn’t get onto my union’s website to register then I was not a full member of the union and did not have full rights (attending and voting in meetings, etc). I found this ironic since they had already collected over a full year of union dues, not to mention that posting something on a bulletin board is a pretty ineffective way to communicate with your membership.

Moving Forward

To be clear, in no way am I advocating for the dissolution of PS unions, only stating that I am uncertain as to their role in the future. To date, I haven’t come across even a remotely definitive clue as to what should be their role moving forward. However, intuitively I feel as though there is potential for unions to step into the gaps that Gen Y sees in their work environments (work-life balance, being challenged in the workplace, training and development, promoting the use of new technologies and social media, better information sharing, etc.) and champion those issues in order to gain their support.

Conversely, perhaps it is Gen Y who should take the lead here. Collectively they could bolster their involvement in union activities, infiltrate their leadership and tune their activities towards their own workplace issues. I have a sense that if unions can be used to advocate issues that resonate with younger generations of workers, then they are likely to be successful in attracting their support. Although again, I am not certain of the degree to which a collective agreement is the proper venue for such an exchange to take place. Furthermore, given the homogeneity of the content of agreements across the public service, I’m not sure what unions are doing as far as making recommendations on issues such as learning & development, work-life balance, etc.

At the very least, envisioning the role of unions in the renewal process seems to be a subject meriting further discussion (that’s your cue to offer your comments).


  1. AnonymousJuly 11, 2008

    Interesting post (and topic).

    I thought I would offer up two Canadian examples of union communications which I found quite compelling (in different ways). One is a "day in the life" piece by the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), adapted from a U.S. storyline.

    The other is a television ad by the Alberta Union of Provincial employees or AUPE (AUPE announcement here).

    Both are tying union relevance and importance to the role of government in the average person's daily experience.

    The AUPE approach is particularly positive and stands in contrast to more "combative" communications, although the intended audience (membership vs. general public) is different also.

    Indeed, even the difference between AUPE (all positive framing and "your working people" tagline) and NUPGE ("A day in your life would be scary without..." and lots of framing vis-a-vis risk avoidance) in taking on a similar theme is interesting to me.

  2. AnonymousJuly 12, 2008

    oh, here we go again. Sooooo, if I understand you correctly, you know nothing about your own union and it must be because unions are irrelevant, too old, incompetent? It couldn't possibly because you have taken no steps to education yourself or to find out how to get involved? Noooooooo, couldn't be that. Must be everyone else right? Your series of articles are proving to be nothing but alot of whining about how no one is doing anything for you.....what are you doing for yourself?