Are Unions Obsolete?

Around the world, unions are in decline. For the first time since the 1960s, the proportion of Canadians who belong to unions has fallen below 30 per cent. Private sector union workers, once the bastion of organized labour, are down to 14 per cent. Those employees whose numbers are growing the fastest in Canada — the young, immigrants, the private service-sector workers — are the least unionized. Many argue that these trends reflect the irrelevance of unions in the new global economy. Thanks to new technologies and management systems, they say, workers in "post hierarchical" organizations are now "empowered" on the job. Old antagonisms are said to be dissolving in a new spirit of cooperation. We're all bosses now. Academics talk about liberated, fulfilling work not as a radical goal, but as capitalism's own project. From a pragmatic perspective, some argue, this new "cooperation" reflects the realism of our times. In today's hyper-competitive economy, labour-management conflicts are luxuries we can't afford. So who needs unions?

About union decline there is no doubt. What is in doubt are these explanations. Despite all the talk about "post hierarchical" work, in workplaces where this kind of "liberating work" is supposed to be found, management control is often stronger than ever before. With few exceptions, the old divide between those who design work and those who do it, between those who order and those who obey, has not changed much at all.

Perhaps this is why the language of workplace empowerment is heard less often these days. In its place, the more pragmatic language of "competitiveness" and "survival" has emerged as the dominant argument for union decline in the new global economy. "Free markets," a set of abstract forces out there, have their own in-built imperatives, we are warned. Non-unionism is at the top of the list.

Yet, contrary to popular perceptions, unionized workplaces are often more innovative and more productive than non-union workplaces. Unions also tend to produce other good effects as major forces for greater social equality. Workers are paid better, and it's almost impossible to have decent health care, public pensions, public education, and a host of other beneficial social policies without a strong labour movement.

If union decline can't be explained on the grounds that work has been liberated or that unionized workplaces aren't competitive, neither can it be explained on the grounds that people don't want to join unions. Survey after survey has shown that many workers want to join unions. So why don't more people join unions? Employer and government anti-unionism is a big part of the answer.

Noting a significant increase in anti-union discrimination around the world, the UN-affiliated International Labour Organization (ILO) cites Canada for denying workers the right to strike by abusing its use of compulsory binding arbitration. The ILO also cites Canada for denying collective bargaining rights to many public sector workers. In addition, on the grounds that they provide "essential services,"provincial governments now deny 10 to 15 per cent of their employees the right to strike. Provincial governments have also weakened "unfair labour practice" laws and eliminated provisions that certify unions when enough workers have signed union cards. And provinces have scrapped anti-scab laws and given employers more freedom to hire and fire as they see fit. In the last decade, the proportion of government jobs in the economy has fallen by almost a third. Most of these have been union jobs.

Many private sector employers have been even more aggressive. In addition to using court injunctions and "replacement" (scab) labour, employers are using sophisticated union-busting teams. It is common practice to use rigorous hiring procedures to eliminate applicants with union sympathies. When employers commit unfair labour practices, they frequently pay no penalties, and when they do pay penalties, the fines can be less than those for jaywalking.

Governments have facilitated private sector anti-unionism by abandoning the priorities they once gave to low unemployment policies, public health care and other social programs that gave workers a measure of protection. Enhancing economic insecurity, Ottawa has made huge cuts in social welfare and in unemployment insurance coverage and payments. Whereas nine of 10 unemployed workers were once eligible for unemployment insurance, today fewer than four in 10 qualify. In most provinces, the minimum wage has fallen below poverty levels. These and other policies are promoting a flood of precarious, part-time, short-term "bad jobs" with little job security, low wages and no or few fringe benefits. For an increasing number of people in Canada, stable jobs and careers have been replaced by a sequence of employment "episodes," making it rarer to maintain a fixed relation to any employer, or to co-workers and to one's community. In this context, union organizing is much more difficult.

New management strategies are another reason for union decline. In Canada, the U.S., and other industrial economies, modern industrial unionism was born in large factories. Today, big factory capitalism is declining. Employers are decentralizing, outsourcing and subcontracting work. In part this reflects the fact that workplaces in growing sectors of the economy, such as restaurants, retail stores, and financial services, tend to be small. The trend to smaller workplaces also reflects management's use of new information technologies to coordinate production and distribution around the world. These smaller workplaces are easier for management to control. They are also harder and more costly for unions to organize and administer.

Similarly, new information technologies, together with declining transportation costs and the decline of tariffs and other trade barriers, make it easier for firms to locate in low-wage, high-repression, largely non-union jurisdictions. In the U.S., for example, firms have been moving to the U.S. South, where state "right to work" laws make it illegal to require workers to join unions.

In such labour intensive industries as clothing, toys, electronics, and footwear, transnational firms have been moving to China, Vietnam and other countries where manufacturing wages are 20 or 30 cents an hour. Typically, these corporations are part of complex global production chains in which subcontractors subcontract to other subcontractors, and where a host of small firms and home workshops diffuse and disguise responsibility for labour rights. Many of these transnational corporations now "regime shop" for even lower labour standards, pressuring governments and workers to compete for investment and jobs by reducing wages, accepting worse working conditions and restricting labour rights, including the right to join unions.

More fundamental to explaining the decline of unions is the rapid growth of the informal economy in almost every corner of the world. Varying from country to country, and region to region, the informal economy is highly diverse. It includes workers in survival activities such as street vendors, shoe shiners, garbage scavengers, scrap and rag pickers, paid domestic workers employed by households, home workers and workers in sweatshops, and self-employed people operating on their own or with family members. International economic organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund promote this informalization of employment through "structural adjustment programs" that pressure governments to privatize public sectors and expand exports through anti-labour policies.

Indeed, it is in the informal economy that most jobs are being created. In Africa, over 90 per cent of new jobs in the past decade have been created in the informal economy. In Latin America, the informal economy accounts for 60 per cent of urban employment, according to ILO data. In Asia, informal employment ranges from 45-85 per cent of non-agricultural employment. Informal employment is also growing in industrialized economies. In the European Union, it is now estimated that "undeclared work" amounts to 10-28 million jobs. Around the globe, an estimated 211 million children, between 5-14 years old, wash cars, shine shoes, hawk, deliver goods, weave, make fireworks, matches, clothing, furniture, and bricks, and do hard physical work such as scavenging, construction, and commercial agriculture. Many of these children perform the most dangerous and degrading forms of work, including prostitution and drug trafficking, to survive.

These kinds of workers are least likely to have the right to join unions. Most have been left completely outside the labour laws, with little or no protection against arbitrary dismissal, workplace health and safety hazards, excessive overtime and other violations of basic labour rights and standards. All these "decent-work deficits," as the ILO calls them, could be corrected if workers were able to form strong, independent unions. However, even when workers do have an official right to join unions, employers rarely allow it. According to the ILO, those "in informal work represent the largest concentration of needs without voice, the silent majority of the world economy."

Not only is the new global economy contributing to a "representation deficit" when it comes to union rights, but, at the same time, it is contributing to a "democratic deficit" when it comes to citizen rights. Labour rights and democratic rights are inseparable. Increasingly in the new, global economy, labour is becoming an unregulated commodity. Where markets (that is, the bosses and banks) are sovereign, the labour of citizens and of society is narrowed down to a mere economic exchange instead of the heart of democratic politics. While property rights have been constitutionalized in international economic agreements, labour and other human rights have been left outside, in the realm of the voluntary and private. Union rights are core democratic rights. Democratic trade unions are more representative of society than the memberships of all but a few political parties, and far more representative than the plutocratic command structures of private corporations. If the main point of government becomes aligning so-ciety with these private "market forces," where lies democracy?

As part of this new contest for democracy, there are signs that labour movements are taking new forms. In Canada, these include "flying squads" of workers, retirees, students and other activists who support striking and locked out workers in other workplaces. These also include solidarity actions between unions and the homeless, and links between unions and a host of other social movements, including the environmental, anti-racist, feminist, student, and peace movements. Particularly prominent is the growing participation of unionists in solidarity with workers in the global South, in the global justice movement, and in the anti-war movement. There are also signs of a re-emergence of grassroots participation in some unions, and of the development of alliances with non-union workers.

Another indicator of revitalization is the shift toward new organizing. In Canada, several unions are making dramatic increases in the resources devoted to organizing growing numbers of private sector workers, including hotel workers, restaurant workers, retail workers, and security guards, many in part-time and temporary jobs. Many medical, teaching and other professionals are also joining unions as part of their resistance to public sector budget cuts. Often, professional unionization is also in response to administrators' challenges to professional autonomy, as in the U.S., where doctors are increasingly at loggerheads with powerful "managed care" companies. Many university teachers are unionizing because they face similar challenges. The dire spectre haunting post-secondary education is one of electronic teaching delivered by low-paid academic nomads on short-term contracts, doing excessive teaching with little or no time for their research.

"Community unionism" centred on alliances between unions and community groups in pursuit of common goals is another indication of this revitalization. In the communities in which they live, union members are working with minority rights groups, religious groups, women's groups, training organizations and other organizations. These union-community partnerships help with organizing drives, promote improved community services, fight against cuts in social programs, campaign against racial and gender discrimination, improve schools, build social housing, and pursue a host of other community goals. In the U.S., for ex-ample, community union-ism has been effective in helping to organize immigrant home workers, home care providers, sweatshop workers and other marginalized, often invisible workers, including undocumented immigrant work-ers. Recently, a broad coalition of labour, religious and community groups worked with Latino and Chinese American workers to pass an Unpaid Wages Prohibition Act. As a result, the state of New York now has the strongest wage-enforcement law in the U.S..

In other parts of the world, unions are active in promoting democratic worker cooperatives to organize workers. In Singapore, the labour movement helped create a workers' co-op among self-employed taxi and minibus drivers. In Benin, unions helped build a producer co-op spanning 33 villages. In the Philippines, the labour movement organized a cooperative for poor families by providing loans, training, and a social security program, and by helping members to market their products.

All these are signs not of the demise of unions, but of the labour movement's growing adaptation to the new global econ-omy. The history of un-ions is a history of workers organizing themselves on the basis of solidarity with each other and with their allies. The need for workers to organize themselves has not changed.

Don Wells teaches labour studies at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario.

This article, reprinted with permission, is based on the article "Are Labour Unions Obsolete in the New Global Economy?," first published in Inroads: The Canadian Journal of Opinion, Summer/Fall 2003. For more information, visit the web site: