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Weekly Column: The Role of Unions Reloaded

Friday, June 5, 2009
In the past, I wrote a column in which I explored the role of public service unions (if you go back and re-read that column, make sure you read the comments, and then read this response). In the face of some lingering uncertainty of their role, it seemed to me that the most effective way for me to receive communication from, learn about, and be able to influence decision-making in the union was to get involved. So I decided to set out to add "shop steward" to my CV.


Context

The training was 2 and 1/2 days; paid in full by the union (which really means paid for by my own – and probably some of your - monthly dues). The sessions were geared towards teaching us how to be a shop steward and how to use/interpret the collective agreement (CA).


Quick Recommendation

I would recommend that all public servants take a course of this nature. Not so much to be a shop steward, but to help familiarize yourself with your CA. Should an issue arise, knowing your rights and recourse is important, especially in the absence of solid and enterprise-wide HR solutions, standards, and consistency. I can honestly say I learned more about my rights (esp. regarding leave and harassment) during my training with my union than I did during my departmental or public service-wide orientation session.


Shocked by the Tone

The session started well enough. The Labour Relations Officer (LRO) encouraged us to seek informal resolutions prior to involving the union. However, it quickly descended into the simplistic “management bad – union good” discussion. The adversarial tone of the entire experience was rather shocking and detracted from what was otherwise valuable information.

The conversation also quickly drifted away from the actual training, and towards more substantive questions: ‘how is the union dealing with this? How can we change that? What if we have an issue with this?’ and in every case the answer seemed to be to delegate those decisions to the union executive - that is what they are there for. While participation is supposed to be a founding principle of organized labour, the union’s approach, namely defer any and all matters to labour relations officers, just doesn’t sit well with someone like me.


Making an Exit

By the end of the 2 and ½ days, I could no longer tolerate the adversarial tone that framed the entire experience. In the end, I lost control and I left the room with this little diatribe:

I have some serious reservations about the unionization of knowledge workers in a knowledge economy. Generally speaking, given today’s demographic pressures, I think the relevance of unions will continue to decline.

New labour market entrants (e.g. youth) have no historical connection to organized labour. I have worked in unionized environments for about 10 of my 14 years in the labour force. Yet, I have no deep connection to the movement because I have never had to fight to establish any of my rights, nor have I ever had to resort to filing a grievance to uphold those rights. Work relationships should be managed actively, by all parties, in a manner that renders grievances moot in all but the most terrible of situations.

Furthermore, by 2017, 1 in 5 Canadians will be a visible minority, many of them recent arrivals to Canada, and 96% of them settling in large urban centres, and accounting for 100% of the labour force growth. Their views on unions are likely to be as diverse as their educational, cultural and geographical backgrounds.

Further still, Canada's Aboriginal population, a population with little affinity for the federal government, let alone its unions, is Canada’s fastest growing population segment and represents an enormous pool for potential labour.

Couple all of that with the fact that most public service unions are still communicating via bulletin boards by elevator bays or in lunch rooms, and I would hazard a guess about the pickle that public service unions will find themselves in if they don’t start to do what is required to make themselves continually relevant.

Oh, and in my three years in government I have only worked with a current collective agreement for 2 months, and it was legislated, not bargained.


Conclusion

Mike and I have discussed this issue multiple times and there are a whole host of issues here: legacy, untapped potential, communication, transparency, etc. What happens next? Well we can either sit back and watch, or stand up and get involved, and for once, I am not certain doing the latter will make a difference… there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of interest among my contemporaries (in mind and attitude, not age) coming-together around the issue, at least not yet.