Time for Union Renewal

Starting the Conversation: Part Two

Photograph By John Maclennan

The feelings and thoughts expressed here are mine, based on conversations I've had with union activists and union staff over the past several years. They reflect many of our lives in Canada's labour movement: some of what we've experienced, a few things we've learned, and what we hope for on the subject of union renewal, which many have called for but which, for the most part, continues to elude us. The following 10 ideas, plus those found in part one of this article, are meant to help start the discussion. [Part 1 is featured in Our Times' Labour Day/Fall 2012 double issue, Vol. 31 No.4/5, with photographs by John Maclennan.] 

Labour needs a new school of learning for leaders, staff and activists, where tested, up-to-date adult education methods are employed. The Canadian Labour
is the logical host for this school, following widespread discussion and input. It should be available to all unions. The school needs to move beyond the traditional nuts and bolts or single-issue courses offered by labour. Emphasis should be placed on the ABCs of trade unionism, building relationships of mutual respect and openness, engaging in thoughtful and revealing conversations, promoting confidence and good group dynamics, and running well-managed organizations that members and staff feel good about. The courses should initially place emphasis on new things labour needs to learn, such as using language that is clear and welcoming; acknowledging the limitations of current practices; building a culture of participatory leadership; hosting new forums and participating in broader conversational outreach; and managing revitalized, connected and coordinated unions, district labour councils and labour centrals. The school should be about figuring out how to ask the good and strategic questions rather than prescribing the "right" answers.

Part of what we need to talk about is how to break down the separations that limit our thinking, make us less of a whole person, and stand in the way of developing common objectives that would benefit us all. We need to learn how to reconnect the producer and consumer in us, family member and community member, the thinker and doer, the voter and trade unionist, the worker and neighbour, the citizen of Canada with the citizen of the world. To connect the dots and develop new ways of doing things, we must remain open-minded and willing to try new things.

Looking after personal and family needs is something we all have in common. The challenge is to figure out how to do this without harming others, to link our self-interest to social and community well-being and goals. Labour, as part of its key objectives, must find a way to move beyond the limited issue-by-issue workplace efforts that now preoccupy it. We need to reach out to our own members and the many others whom the economy is not adequately serving, and develop a short list of common objectives that place improved security, well-being and community development at the forefront of the new kind of conversation Canada so desperatelyneeds.

Our country has the talent and experience to engage in this new kind of conversation and figure out new ways of doing things. Trade unionists are well positioned to take up this challenge. It is certainly long overdue. As part of the learning process and discussion we want to promote we need to focus on common human needs and transcend the divisions that keep us weak and ineffective.

If we're honest, we know that the numbers of unions likely has to be reduced. Consolidating and coordinating the thousands of collective agreements independently negotiated across the country also needs to be considered. We also need to look at the role, mandates and effectiveness of our labour centrals, federations, and labour councils. With one of the most fragmented labour
movements in the industrialized world, coming up with more effective ways to organize ourselves should be one of our overall goals.

Unions should be organized along industrial and/or sector lines, with internal servicing geared in part to the specific conditions and needs in each industry and sector. The divisive energy and time spent on jurisdictional conflicts and competing for the same members need to be eliminated. As well, far less time should be spent on duplicating efforts, an inevitable consequence of fragmentation and the lack of union coordination. Economic planning and industrial relations questions, such as what is produced, how, and what share of revenues and value-added will go to workers and the broader community, can no longer be the private domain of employers and those who speak for them.

These issues, which are addressed in a subsequent point, have to be given added importance, and taking steps to consolidate unions can facilitate this process. So, too, can giving the time, focus and resources needed to create politically effective, well-resourced, sophisticated and inspiring labour centrals, something that has not been a priority for most unions.

How many unions? It would be presumptuous to suggest a number. Fewer, we think, would be appropriate. These new, larger unions must collectively plan to address and implement central strategic objectives. Searching for the right strategic objectives should take place simultaneously with the implementation of the discussions and educational process mentioned earlier and the process of consolidation and re-organization touched upon here. Collective bargaining will always remain the primary responsibility of the labour movement. The point is that, together, we stand a better chance of achieving what should be fair and reasonable settlements across industries and sectors and the country as a whole. Together, we can move beyond reacting and begin to focus on common economic themes that will benefit all and translate into improved relations and conditions in all workplaces and beyond.

The important legislative rights won by labour in the 1940s don't give us what we need to address the challenges of the new millennium. Back then, these rights (the right to collective bargaining and union representation, for example) were major victories, following years of organizing. But it has been more than 60 years since labour won these rights. The world has changed radically, and what we won in the past simply does not give us the rights or the leverage needed to effectively deal with modern challenges. At best, these rights afford us some ability to react to and cushion the impacts of change. A new balance of power needs to be achieved, as what exists now is skewed against us. Labour and management do not face each other as equals.

The employers hold all the important cards.

We are living in a new millennium. Corporate power, both domestically and internationally, has increased phenomenally. We need to be bold and think of new democratic rights for this new period. We need new rights that give us some say over the most important decisions impacting on our working lives and our world. Decisions now considered the exclusive right of management must be opened up, made more democratic and non-exclusionary. Whether it is restructuring, training, privatization or plant shutdowns, labour's voice and concerns need to be

Given how the industrial relations system now works, unions are an afterthought for management, an institution that has to be dealt with, but usually only after the important decisions have already been taken. We are also too often seen as one-dimensional, trying to stand in the way of change, or as people so blinded by narrow self-interest that we can't see the bigger picture and ignore the impacts of what we do on other citizens. While it can legitimately be argued that we are not treated fairly by the media or existing public opinion, the fact remains
that we are viewed by many as uncompromising, standing in the way of change, and unrealistic, and many in the media see us as too distanced and predictable.

This won't change, we fear, until labour gains some say over such things as restructuring and work organization; what goods and services get produced or provided; and how wealth is distributed and investment is deployed and democratically regulated to address workplace, community, and societal needs. This is obviously a radical concept. But we are convinced that, if our democracy is to remain viable, these new rights are needed and ordinary people must acquire a greater say over the fundamental decisions impacting on our quality of life.

We've seen, for example, programs and services in the public sector hived off and commercialized without meaningful union input despite loss of services and public
accountability, rising costs, and deteriorating quality. We've seen unmanaged and unregulated trade undermine our industrial base and weaken our public and community services. We've seen an auto sector decimated without effective union input into the types and quality of vehicles produced and their environmental impact, or how to shift production capacity to create new, socially useful products to protect jobs, families and communities.

Why shouldn't we have a role in these decisions? It is our livelihoods, the security of our families, and the health and welfare of our communities that are at stake. To get to this point, however, labour will need to acquire new skills and understandings. It will also have to demonstrate that it is sincerely concerned with the welfare of the general population. Those who now monopolize management rights and hold the power to make decisions say they can both look after their own self-interest and also demonstrate concern for the majority. We think they've failed. We think ordinary Canadians working together are in a better position to balance these two things, self-interest and community, and ultimately help create the democratic and socially enlightened policies needed to achieve a better deal for the vast majority of Canadians.

We believe in solidarity. But to achieve solidarity we need to acknowledge and appreciate the diverse composition of the movement. The labour community is not homogeneous. Significant differences exist within the movement. These differences reflect the jobs people do, the incomes they earn, the regions they live in, the educational and other experiences they've had, the families and ethnic and religious groups they come from, and much more, including existing union identities. Good organizing will take this into consideration, and be appropriately nuanced and welcoming. The labour movement has come a long way in appreciating this point.

Acknowledging it and acting accordingly will remain essential in the future. Furthermore, it It opens the door to recognizing (and acting upon the fact) that there are many others outside the labour movement who have much in common with those already belonging to unions.

One objective (or perhaps more) has to relate to the economic policies of the past few decades. We are reluctant to be too specific at this time. We think we need to listen more and see where our discussions go. Ever since Canada simultaneously experienced economic stagnation and inflation in the mid and late 1970s, those in power have marketed and imposed macro-economic
policies that have not worked. The era of deregulation, privatization and free trade has been a disaster for most working people. Those who now control the economy and make decisions affecting our lives have had enough time to show whether or not the economic, social and political answers they support are working. They are not. They've been in the driver's seat as we have lurched from one failing policy shift to another over the past 30 years. From wage controls during stagflation in the mid-'70s to high interest rates following that, from then eliminating the deficit and cutting back government, to the more recent mantras of becoming more competitive and the adoption of unregulated free trade and financial markets, it has been a long and difficult period for most working people. Some in the population have done well. But for those in the middle, for average Canadians, for working people and those at the bottom of the economic ladder, life has become harder, not easier. The needs and welfare of ordinary citizens have to finally be given the primary consideration they deserve.

If labour is to engage in this discussion, it will need to shoulder new responsibilities. It will need to listen to and work with others outside the movement. It will need to understand how the economy is now organized and operates, and how you move in new directions via transitions that
make sense and that don't leave people behind. It will need to help in the creation of a new language of change that is clear, understandable, and comfortable for Canadians. We will need to stop reacting to every issue we disagree with, making it the new priority, unwittingly becoming preoccupied with yet another diversion that, in the end, depletes energy and resources but does not bring about a shift in direction. Labour will need to link the many, varied issues and concerns that inevitably arise in any open society to strategic objectives and thinking.

In a sense, labour, has to do less, but better. Labour needs to focus. This will require coordination, mutual respect, and an appreciation that we will all be better off if we can generate widespread support for a few common policies. It means creating trust within the movement and between the movement and the broader community. It means we are serious when we say what exists now is not working and we need to search for new ways of doing things.

Putting a label on where we are going is not important. What is important is starting on a journey that most Canadians are prepared to participate in and support and give their best efforts to. It's about democracy. It's about putting the vast talents of our country to use without forgettingabout why we are here and the needs of all citizens. It's about working together and looking after
one another.

Democracy needs to be revitalized, touch larger numbers of people, and become more than simply casting a ballot at election time. Cynicism about politics is growing. The key thing to recognize is that the existing electoral system is not working for most Canadians. While differences exist between the major parties, all of them engage only a small percentage of the population, and all of them, when in power, or in the opposition, have been unable to make life better and more secure for most Canadians during the past few decades. There is no indication that this is going to change in the foreseeable future.

In part, the debate within labour circles about voting for the NDP or engaging in strategic voting reflects this reality. It also reflects the fact that labour's political voice has been diminished.

Politics is important. But, at this point, labour can best help by renewing itself and helping to get a new conversation underway in the country. Out of that process and the changes in public opinion that will follow, the answers to how best to reform and engage in the electoral process will emerge.

We are fortunate to live in Canada. Most Canadians feel this way, including recent immigrants who are grateful to have come here. You'd never know it by reading the publications of many unions. A more balanced picture and description of the country is needed. What we appreciate, enjoy and respect needs to be voiced if we are to connect with our own members and reach new people. Moving ahead requires that we be clear about where we want to go and why. Equally important is getting the context right and acknowledging what we like and wish to keep and strengthen in a country we enjoy calling home.

What have unions done well in the past? We should highlight these best practices. They should be examined and documented and made accessible as teaching tools. We need to do this with an open mind and not get bogged down by existing union identities. We don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is much that is good about our movement. Despite years of trying to hold the line, there is still widespread support for unions among ordinary members.

What works best should be documented, celebrated, retained, strengthened and become a model for others.

If you want to achieve something or acquire a new skill, there is no substitute for hard work.

While there is much to be frustrated about, rhetoric and anger and impetuosity will not get us where we want to go. It will take hard work, patience, persistence, good organizing, and, most importantly, a sincere belief in democratic engagement to get us to "maybe;" to help usher in the positive changes we desire.

How do we get started? How do we initiate the conversation? To start, we think, representative groups of people will need to gather and be willing to talk and share. This could take place in many ways, within and between unions and more broadly based labour bodies, for example, and in a variety of community settings and forums where labour activists can come together. It would be helpful if some of these discussion groups were composed of elected trade union leaders and union staff. Using what we've written may be a good way to get the conver-sations going. Our experience tells us that those who begin the conversations will need to be open, non-judgmental and prepared to look at new ways of doing things and working together. They will need to use clear, welcoming language that Canadians can identify with from the get-go. And they will need to take the notion of trade union renewal seriously, giving it the time, resources and attention it deserves.


This is Part 2 of the article "Time for Union Renewal: Starting the Conversation." Part 1 is featured in Our Times' Labour Day/Fall 2012 double issue, Vol. 31 No.4/5, with photographs by John Maclennan.

Larry Katz, a union activist for more than 40 years, retired as national research director at the Canadian Union of Public Employees in 2000.