The Canadian Press
January 26, 2012
In a surprisingly blunt assessment of organized labour’s current difficulties, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) union say in a discussion paper that they must become a lot more relevant to working people, not only in contract bargaining, but for social change.
The paper, titled “A Moment of Truth for Canadian Labour,” says the economic pressures of globalization, growing employer aggression, hostile government policy and public cynicism have weakened unions significantly during the past two decades.
“If unions do not change, and quickly, we will steadily follow U.S. unions into continuing decline,” says the paper, which is marked “confidential.”
“We must reverse the erosion of our membership, our power and our prestige.”
Statistics show union membership in the private sector in Canada has slid from about 30 per cent in the early 1970s to 17.4 per cent — or 1.92 million employees — excluding farm workers. Public sector unionization remained at about 75 per cent in the same period.
U.S. union membership in the private sector has plunged from 30 per cent to 7 per cent over the past four decades. Public-sector unionization south of the border has stayed at about 37 per cent.
In Canada, employers such as Vale, U.S. Steel and Caterpillar have taken a hard line and demanded major concessions that has bruised organized labour and left workers wondering whether unions can be effective.
To help turn the trend around, the paper calls for the CAW, which represents 190,000 members, and CEP, which has another 130,000 members, to create a “brand” and “visibility for a new kind of national Canadian industrial unionism.”
“This improved brand image will be essential for attracting more individual workers to want to join a union,” says the paper, written by key strategists in the two unions and distributed at the highest levels of both groups.
The paper, which has received the support of CAW president Ken Lewenza and CEP president Dave Coles, is the springboard for talks between the two unions for a possible merger next year. The two unions announced the formation of a “proposal committee” and an extensive consultation process this week.
“We have to be thinking outside of the box,” Lewenza said in an interview Wednesday.
The paper says unions are experiencing a significant generational change as senior workers who fought for improvements retire and organizers struggle to appeal to younger employees.
Furthermore, the public perception of unions has grown more negative, with many believing that unions are primarily self-interested and outdated, according to the paper.
The paper says that if organized labour wants to reverse its demise in power and influence, unions will have to be innovative in how they organize workers and provide and improve services for them.
“The formation of a new union must be founded on a desire to and willingness to modernize our practices, to innovate with new models of organizing and servicing, and to rebuild our image with workers,” the paper adds.
“A new union would aim to spark a ‘culture shift’ among staff and local union leadership, to go beyond ‘servicing’ and view their work as movement building.”
Organized labour has not adapted well to changing workplace circumstances in the pursuit of people in industries such as the media and technology sectors. In response, unions could resort more to the “hiring hall” concept that’s used in the construction industry, where contractors contact a central agency for organized workers when they need skilled labour, said one insider familiar with the paper.
CAW and CEP insiders say a new union would look at new ways to open its doors so people like laid-off workers could join or become affiliated, to become more effective in pushing for better employment opportunities and social programs. Workers in non-unionized plants could also be more welcome in a union that’s pursuing social change in a community.
Unions also need to use new technology and social media to “educate, agitate, organize and mobilize,” said CAW economist Jim Stanford, who helped write the paper.
“The overall challenge is to reboot the ‘brand’ of unions in the minds of workers, so that we are seen once again as a movement that fights for fairness and security for all working people,” he noted.
The hard-hitting paper acknowledges that the labour movement has failed to restructure or to address the longstanding issue of too many unions and locals. It also points to the movement’s inability to initiate and lead effective campaigns or co-ordinate services.
Alluding to the Canadian Labour Congress and some provincial labour federations, the paper also criticizes umbrella union groups for “paralysis and dysfunction.”