Imagine There’s No Labour Board - Counterpoint

Organizing workers, on the face of it, should be far easy than it is.
Twenty-first century Canadian workers, after all, are not slaves, nor
are they indentured servants. They have extensive rights as workers,
which have long been codified in provincial, federal and even
international treaties, regulation and law. Put plainly, and as Roy
Adams point out, whether or not workers are union members, they have the
right to organize collectively, negotiate with their employers and even
engage in collective action to promote their demands and interests. On
paper, it all seems remarkably straight forward and simple.

And yet, as Adams again correctly points out, 70 per cent of Canadian
workers are neither union members, nor do they collectively negotiate
the conditions and terms of their employment. So, what is the problem
here? Do the majority of Canadian workers simply not know that they have
these rights? Or, as right-wing pundits would have us believe, have
these workers made an informed decision to not bargain collectively and
to accept, instead, the unilateral, unencumbered, but hopefully
benevolent rule of their employer?

Opinion poll after poll of Canadian workers show that considerably more
than the current 30 per cent of unionized workers would like to have
collective representation. The problem lies in what it takes to execute
that desire. Unfortunately, having a right does not automatically mean
you can exercise it. One of the reasons that the vast majority of
workers who organize in Canada do so with the aid of an existing union
is because moving from having rights to actually exercising them takes
considerable resources.

Organizing is darn hard work that requires much time and effort. Simply
knowing you are allowed to organize may not be sufficient enticement to
do it. And there is the added disincentive of employer resistance and
disapproval. Few workers would want to be known to their boss as a
"troublemaker" and an "organizer" of other dissatisfied employees.
Indeed, countless workers fired and discriminated against for attempting
to exercise their rights would attest to the fact that it is dangerous
work. As U.S. slavery abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass noted,
"Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will."

The weakening of labour laws, and the exclusion of large groups of
employees from the protection provided by labour law, make the road to
successful representation much more precarious these days. Yet labour
law and labour boards, in spite of all of their weaknesses, continue to
provide at least some protection to workers attempting to organize by
limiting the full coercive power of the employer. That's why unions seek
to include as many workers as possible within the protective provisions
of labour law. Yes, workers can organize whether they are covered by
labour law or not, but it's a very, very hard road to travel.

The choice of unions to not expend too much of their resources on going
down this road is not a failure of imagination but a sober appreciation
that organizing is more likely to succeed where employer interference is
legally constrained. Also unions understand that for organizing to
succeed, workers need to see that they not only have voice in the
workplace, but that their voice has power. The right to be heard, but
ignored, is not worth the effort. Organizing succeeds where it can
demonstrate that collective action gets results.

Organizing is a skill that successful organizers craft and develop
through experience over time. Bringing a diverse group of people
together to forge a common sense of community and commitment and leading
them to take action in face of powerful opposition rarely happens
spontaneously, and always requires at least some people prepared to
dedicate considerable time and effort to the enterprise. The vast
majority of workers, of course, do not seek employment with the
objective of becoming an organizer or union leader. And it is the rare
and exceptional worker who decides to risk their employer's wrath and
their co-workers' fear or indifference and goes ahead and organizes for
collective representation and action. It is therefore not the least bit
surprising that the majority of workers who seek to organize reach out
to unions and invite experienced unionists to assist in "organizing"
their workplaces.

Unions, of course, recognize that there are tremendous barriers to
workers being able to exercise their rights, even those rights codified
in labour laws. And while unions may wish to help all workers, they also
have an obligation to be good stewards of their members' resources,
whether those resources are members' dues money or the valuable time of
activists and organizers. For this reason, unions tend to expend their
organizing efforts strategically at worksites that have already shown
significant support for collective action, or where union reps already
have sufficient familiarity with the industry, craft or undertaking to
be able to assist in generating support.

Today, the power imbalance between capital and labour that labour law
sought to correct through promoting (not just tolerating) collective
bargaining by workers has grown, with capital once again very much in
command. In the private sector in particular, the unconstrained power of
employers has led to the decline of unions among private sector
employees: from over 30 per cent union density a few decades ago, to
about 17 per cent in 2006. With the overwhelming majority of Canadian
workers employed in the private sector, this decline has had a
significant negative impact on the wages, working conditions and
employment security of workers throughout the country. A major problem
faced by unions in organizing workers in the private sector is the
growing demoralization of the workforce. Organizers know that unionism
is a movement of hope, not of despair, and that it's almost impossible
to organize workers who are demoralized and believe that collective
action will be futile.

But might the time of unions and their organizers be more fruitfully
spent on a wider, educational labour rights campaign aimed at the public
and the workforce as a whole? Would workers not be better off if
Canadian unions worked to build a new civil rights movement, similar to
the U.S. civil rights movement - or the anti-war or anti-sweatshop
movements - only this time aimed at mobilizing people around labour
rights? Clearly, unions would do well to unite with allies and seek to
educate, agitate and organize around worker rights as human rights, a
subject close to Roy Adams' heart.

Campaigns such as that of the National Union of Public and General
Employees' for a workers' bill of rights can be valuable educational
tools for organizing support for labour law reform and educating
politicians and the public at large about the sorry state of labour
rights in Canada. But NUPGE and the other unions know that for
unorganized workers to actually be able to exercise their labour rights,
they will need - in addition to a workers' bill of rights - strong
worker organizations, with independent resources, and members
experienced in exercising their rights and committed to preserving and
extending the rights they have gained. Educational campaigns are no
substitute for the hard, expensive, time-consuming work of worker
organizing and union building.

In an ideal world, employers would recognize the organized employee's
voice as a valuable information feedback instrument, essential for the
continuous improvement of any workplace or system. (Engineers only half
jokingly refer to a system without a feedback loop for corrections as
"stupid.") In this ideal world, workers would recognize their right to
participate in decisions that affect them as inalienable human rights
possessed by all citizens and residents in a democracy, and they would
assert this right in every workplace throughout the country. But even in
this imagined community, someone would still need to call the meeting,
draft an agenda, inform participants of the meeting, motivate their
participation and, well, organize this democratic, participatory

There's no question that forging a wider constituency committed to
labour rights, and mobilizing that constituency to pressure employers
and governments, could certainly assist union organizing and workers'
rights. But, again, rights alone are not enough. They require
organization and struggle in order to breathe life into them: to make
them real and to assure that workers can use them.

Elaine Bernard, a labour educator from Canada, is executive director of Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program.