Unions need to spend some time to reinvent themselves

Over the recent past, unions here have not acted sensibly. Their conduct has harmed their cause and the economy in general. Evidence of their mistakes: the long walk out at Vale Limited in Labrador, the prolonged strike at Inco in Sudbury, and the excessively high demands on the automobile companies in North America that brought the industry to the verge of collapse.

It must be recognized that unions have been responding to economic frustrations, but their actions clearly have not been in their best interests. With luck, union bosses will start to learn something. Worker discontent already is rife in the business world. It will worsen among workers as governments cut jobs in the heavily unionized public sector. Hence unions need to ask themselves more serious questions before they respond with strikes or threats of strikes. Can they protect their members without inflicting intolerable harm to the public?

In the long run by proceeding along their historical path they are undermining their cause, given the current economic climate. Above all, they now must adapt their organizations to a world undergoing stress because of weak business conditions.

Unions need to start by taking a real look at their prospects. Union membership has fallen significantly here in Canada, and even more dramatically in the United States.

The proportion of unionized workers is increasing in the swollen public sector. Schools and public transportation are not going to disappear the way manufacturers have shed jobs. However, the public has very little appetite for public-sector complaints.

Most of the members of that sector have done extremely well in recent years. Police and firefighters have received wage increases that in many cases seem exorbitant. Nowadays, governments will have to slash “entitlements.” So many public-sector employees have overplayed their hands that the general public is angry and fed up. Inasmuch as governments have been unwilling to fight teachers’ unions, schools are caught in a straitjacket and are unable to make necessary changes, such as longer school days and with reduced summer holidays.

Unions need to work harder at presenting themselves as champions of public services, rather than simply defending what they call the interests of their members. Workers should emphasize improving productivity, teachers on advancing the quality of education.

Unions, along with policy experts, should focus on generating fresh ideas, thereby making unions a more constructive force.

In this era, unions must become aware of what their employers are up against.

They should reinvent themselves, helping their cause and the economy at the same time.


Bruce Whitestone