What do Labour Day and Victoria Day have in common?
Both are long weekends that no longer have anything to do with the reason they were originally created.
We’ll temper that slightly for Labour Day — this weekend, for instance, will see the merger of two large Canadian unions, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), into Canada’s largest private sector union, Unifor, with more than 300,000 members. (Disclosure: CEP represents unionized workers at the Kamloops Daily News).
On Thursday, another mega-union merger came to light with a tentative agreement between the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) and the United Steelworkers (USW), which would create a new union with nearly 240,000 members.
But even these union mega-mergers are an indication of the crisis unions face in Canada today: they are having to act more and more like the businesses they face across the bargaining tables in order to stay viable and relevant — and to pay hefty salaries to their executives, of course.
In some sectors, such as health care, unions end up fighting each other for the right to represent workers.
In all of this, they are spending less time working to improve their members’ pay, benefits and working conditions and more time perpetuating themselves. And no wonder: less than a third of Canada’s workforce belongs to a union, with a paltry 17 per cent in the private sector compared to 70 per cent in the public sector. A union job used to conjure up the image of a hard hat: now it conjures up the image of a bureaucrat.
Which brings us to the other major problem with organized labour in Canada today: it doesn’t work for the vast majority of those it represents. Public sector bargaining is a failed system — look no further than public education here in B.C., where teachers and the province have managed one negotiated settlement in 30 years. Thanks to essential services legislation, the overwhelming majority of unionized workers in Canada can’t use the primary tool in a union’s tool kit — the threat of walking off the job.
So, faced with anemic membership and corporatization of unions in the private sector and powerlessness in the public sector, it’s clear that we need to rethink the role of unions — or watch as each Labour Day gets more and more removed from its name.
We Say editorials represent the viewpoint of The Daily News and are written by publisher Tim Shoults, city editor Tracy Gilchrist, or associate news editors Dan Spark and Mark Rogers.