E Pluribus Union

How effective are North American unions in the 21st century? For an answer, let’s look at Toronto, the continent’s fifth most populated metropolis and the largest city in Canada. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) was recently declared an essential service and stripped of its right to strike. Even garbage removal is being privatized away from union control.

Finding anyone outside of the unions' ranks with any degree of sympathy for unions is becoming ever tougher. The very mention of the word ‘union’ tends to evoke tumultuous responses. Rather than thoughtful or informed discussion, we often get ideological jabs laden with as much disingenuous rhetoric as a political campaign.

What led North America to become so decidedly anti-union? A common theme seems to be that unions have overwhelmingly lost public support (which many have attributed to their blatant disregard for the way they are perceived). Let's explore some of the justifications for this hostility.

Going back to Toronto, garbage collection is being privatized mainly because of a bitter strike that halted pick-up for six summer weeks in the midst of the financial crisis in 2009. The TTC was declared an essential service after becoming vilified for an illegal strike in 2006 that was followed two years later by an unannounced halt to service. The 2008 strike began on a Friday at midnight, infuriating and stranding thousands of people across the city. Needless to say, public opinion of unions among Torontonians has yet to improve.

Stories of manufacturing jobs relocating to greener, non-union pastures have become so common that the decay of organized labour’s influence in the private sector is unquestionable. However, this narrative fails to accurately capture the fact that the union density rate is overwhelmingly propped up by public-sector unionism. In 2010, 36% of Americans in the public sector were unionized – more than five times higher than the 7% rate in the private sector. Canada’s situation is similar, with 75% of employees in the public sphere belonging to a union compared to just 14% in private industry.

The image of a greedy member of the autoworker’s union no longer supports the disregard for unionism. Instead, this outlook should be updated to reflect disdain for public-sector unions. If we were to question people carefully about their prejudices, what we may find is that what many of them actually detest is the stereotype of the lazy, entitled, and often completely redundant government employee.

Consequently, one of the outcomes of the public/private divide is the emergence of an "us vs. them" divide that pits workers in the public sector against the rest of the labour market. And with a sustained focus at all levels of government to tighten fiscal belts, it is a split that is unlikely to mend anytime soon.

While there hasn’t been a watershed moment in Canada, the birth of the contemporary American attitude towards organized labour takes root in Ronald Reagan’s decision in 1981 to fire nearly 11,500 air traffic controllers who refused to end their illegal strike and return to work. No labour relations incident before or since (with the possible exception of the recent battle in Wisconsin) has manifested itself so clearly in the public spectrum or left such an indelible imprint on the nation’s collective consciousness.

Anti-union sentiment has steadily increased over the past thirty years but talk of the utility of unions tends to move with economic downturns. Perversely, the worse the economy performs the more unions seem to bother people. Why?

One of the most recited explanations focuses on infringing on the convenience of people outside of the union. The argument is that public sector unions often have a monopoly on the services that they provide. A strike unfairly takes the public hostage and creates unwanted inconvenience. The most recent high-profile example was the Chicago Teachers' Union strike, which left many parents without a backup plan for where their children would go during the workday. Should we be surprised by the public’s hostility? We live in an age where ease is assumed and expediency is expected, features that are largely irreconcilable with the basic function of a public-sector strike. But relying on a personal experience of annoyance isn’t a particularly nuanced reason to justify disliking unions, and nor is faulting them for exercising their only legal source of leverage.

The public’s aversion to inconvenience puts pressure on management to resolve disputes in a timely fashion. And contrary to the private sector where employers can point to a tangible bottom-line, management in the public sector controls a seemingly bottomless purse that’s funded by the same people who aren’t fond of the nuisance strikes pose, regardless of who is at fault.

Accordingly, governments have a vested interest in incurring as little political cost as possible. The government’s focus is often on finding a quick resolution rather than achieving a fiscally prudent contract. The resultant bargaining outcomes set expectations for future negotiations; favourable increases cultivate the belief that they will be won again while a round of austerity breeds anticipation of a catch-up increase down the road.

When governments eventually bleed red ink (and eventually need to realize cost-savings), it finds a convenient scapegoat in public-sector unions, capitalizing on the lack of public sympathy. After all, people get tired of hearing about regularly timed enhancements given to transit workers and garbage collectors that are but a dream in the private sector.

We then encounter situations like in Wisconsin last year where public sector unions were stripped of their right to collectively bargain. A similar development recently occurred in Ontario when the government enacted a second consecutive two-year wage freeze for teachers and also removed their right to strike during that period. Whether or not you believe teachers should be allowed to strike should be a lesser concern than the government’s propensity to unilaterally change the rules in the midst of the bargaining process.

Rather than deferring on our insatiable appetite for short-run convenience or insisting that our elected leaders send a team to the bargaining table that won’t simply hand out rubber-stamped wage increases, it seems that the established response is an attitude that those greedy, out-of-touch union members should be more like the rest of us – just happy to be employed at all.

With this analysis, we tread dangerously close to the politics of envy, crudely translated as: "Hey, if I’m not receiving wage increases and have no job security why should you have any?"

In the private sector this takes the form of the now unassailable truth that if you didn’t toil through four grueling years of an arts program, you should expect to have to defend why you make more than someone who did. The politics of envy are practically engrained in the public/private divide. Labour market newcomers soon learn that employers usually aren’t anywhere near as excited as they are about the skill set they developed in university. With an increasing number of students heavily indebted by soaring tuition fees, emphasis has shifted awayfrom finding the right job to finding any job at all. Recent graduates soon become eager to snap up the first low-paid, paper-pushing gig in the private sector that comes along. When that person looks at his neighbour – similar educational credentials, surely can’t be any better at shuffling around papers – who landed in the heavily unionized public sector, it’s understandable that a sense of bitterness might creep in. But shouldn’t we ask ourselves when it became acceptable to take a position that stresses the lowest common denominator?

Yet, we shouldn’t ignore some of the very compelling reasons for the North American disregard for unions, because not all opponents are overcome by blind resentment. It often has nothing to do with envy at all. For many, the resentment stems from unions putting their narrow interests ahead of the well-being of government coffers.

In addition to the type of tactics employed in Toronto, public-sector unions have responded with an increased focus on electoral politics, an agenda that is a legitimate sore spot for the scores of members who don’t share the same political views.

This issue recently came before the U.S. Supreme Court in Knox v. SEIU, a class-action lawsuit filed in California on behalf of 28,000 non-union employees who objected to being forced to fund the union’s ‘Political Fight-Back Fund’.

The Golden State allows public-sector unions to establish "agency shops" in which employees don’t have to join the union but must nevertheless pay an annual fee to cover the costs related to collective bargaining. But since 1977 employees have had First Amendment protection from being obliged to pay for the union’s ideological and political projects. In Knox the court upheld this principle when it ruled that the SEIU had not followed the proper procedures for allowing employees the chance to opt out of contributing to the fund.

The issue of political activism is far more prevalent in the United States but is also a growing source of agitation in Canada. Let’s look at the actions taken by the Ontario division of CUPE (the Canadian Union of Public Employees), which represents more than 200,000 workers, in 2006. CUPE Ontario passed a resolution sponsoring the boycott of Israel for failing to recognize Palestine’s right to self-determination. Three years later the union introduced plans for a province-wide resolution calling for Israeli academics to be prohibited from speaking at Ontario universities. The amended resolution, which eventually passed, reflected a boycott against working with Israeli institutions that enhance their military as opposed to individual members of academia.

This willingness to overstep their core function and wade into international political diplomacy is a fairly persuasive reason to question the priorities of some of these organizations. Further, this type of leadership seems to indicate that labour is ill-equipped to handle the rebuilding that it so urgently requires.

A final plausible explanation for anti- union sentiment points to the broader cultural shift in the West, a move away from paternalism to a decided sense of "Frontierism"; an American-style narrative of do-or-die individualism. We are charmed into believing that if we dedicate ourselves with the requisite amount of intestinal fortitude, we can achieve almost anything. Indeed, with enough hard work, commitment and inner fire we can run faster, jump higher, and land the well-paid job of our dreams. This attitude is so prevalent in North America, that even both candidates for President, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, advocate their version of it. Individualism has taught us that we shouldn’t need to be burdened by the excessive restrictions on our freedom that unionism entails and we should instead be able to rely on our own impressiveness to negotiate that favourable compensation package. This is true of course for some, but for the rest of us it doesn’t take too much exposure to the real world to understand that this perspective is riddled with shortcomings.

The truth though, is that there isn’t any single reason that comprehensively gets to the heart of anti-union sentiment; regardless of the motive it’s a response that is very much alive and well.

One of the most pivotal outcomes of the public/private divide is the way in which it has been exploited by politicians who recognize that it is, potentially, a political death sentence to be seen as pandering to unions. We see this in the renewed debate surrounding "right to work" laws (R2W) which are currently found in almost half of the United States and have recently been suggested in three Canadian provinces.

R2W is a potentially confusing term that doesn’t imply the right to have a job, but only that an employee does not need to be a member of, or financial contributor to, the union. In contrast to the agency shop it effectively makes the payment of dues a voluntary exercise and allows individuals to reap the benefits of collective bargaining without contributing. Yet, the problem of free-riding shows the detrimental effect of a broader cultural shift that encourages us to place our own well-being far above the vitality of the collective.

Proponents of R2W usually cite two reasons why this type of legislation is desirable. It’s sometimes framed in America as a question of freedom and said to be a states-only tool to counterbalance federal law that distorts the balance of power in the workplace.

The more common justification relies on the assumption that anti-union employers will flock to whatever state passes the law, thereby resuscitating local economies by creating new jobs at a considerably discounted wage.

Regardless of the justification, supporters point to the wealth of economic data demonstrating superior economic growth and performance in these states. But opponents label the data as misleading. It lumps together more than 20 states simply because they share one law in common. Critics also point to a divergence of performance amongst R2W states and claim that it is hard to tease out the true impact of the legislation in light of the enticements of subsidies, lower taxes, and weaker environmental regulations.

Opponents also claim that if citizens were equally given the choice to opt out of paying taxes while still enjoying services, society would inevitably implode. But this debate predictably boils down to a partisan war of words and a battle of conflicting statistics as politicians wiggle to get the greatest mileage from either vilifying public- sector unions or defending their virtue.

So what is the future of the union? Have they really outlived their usefulness, or do we need them now more than ever? Quite frankly, so long as the public sector is the predominant source of unionism in North America they aren’t in danger of extinction unless governments decree them outlawed.

But can they really expect to influence workplaces by concerning themselves with political initiatives? Probably not, especially if doing so means neglecting, or averting attention away from their core functions. Where they go from here is the million-dollar question, and one that is certainly more difficult to answer with the added variable of Frontierism that now permeates Western culture. The only thing that seems like a safe bet for the foreseeable future is that far more governments will find success demonizing the public sector than defending it.

Glen Watson