Financial Post
Thursday, January 15, 2004

The end of unions

The death rattle of the Canada's union movement grows louder as workers
eschew brotherhood and employers jettison superfluous union partners

Hugh Finnamore

LABOUR UNIONS AS WE know them are fast dissolving. That's because union
bosses have been swallowed by a dysfunctional system designed in the 1940s
to tame worker radicalism. Over the decades, they have been co-opted into
the role of business partners, and that has set the stage for a new form of
workplace revolution -- an event few have put their minds to. The union fat
cat has become irrelevant to his members and is of waning value to his
corporate partners.

In 2003, Loblaw Companies Limited snapped the proverbial fingers and its
unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Canadian Auto
Workers (CAW) rolled over and gave it wages and working condition formerly
available to non-union retailers. Now that their playing field is near level
with Wal-Mart, there will be less of a need for the unions as partners.

In California, where the UFCW hesitated in its game of "roll-over and play
dead," the major retailers have all but crushed the UFCW. The Teamsters
Union offered to help the UFCW and claimed to be the "silver bullet" that
would bring Safeway, Ralph's and other retailers to their knees. The
employers stood fast and the Teamsters quickly abandoned the UFCW.
Solidarity Forever, a standard union hymn, was proven little more than a
worthless ditty.

As workers eschew mainstream unionism and as employers start the process of
jettisoning their superfluous union partners, labour leaders sit wide-eyed
and listening to the fearful sounds of death's rattle and creak. Confused
and in disarray, they clamour for their chequebooks in a last-ditch attempt
to buy politicians and to curry their favour. They are frantic for new
legislation or legislative interpretations that will further
institutionalize the labour-relations bureaucracy. They are prepared to
spend a fortune on politicians of every stripe to insulate themselves from
the ravages of internal democracy and the wrath of their disaffected

Canada's largest unions transferred $3.5-million into the federal NDP
coffers in December, 2003, alone. Laborers International Union of North
America (LIUNA) helped raise $750-thousand for Prime Minister Paul Martin's
leadership campaign and his union was a push behind former Rogers Cable CEO
and right wing Toronto mayoralty candidate John Tory. In B.C., Premier
Gordon Campbell predicts that unions will place "millions and millions of
dollars" backing the lacklustre B.C. NDP for the 2005 provincial elections.

While about 70% of Canadians think unions are relevant, only 30% would
bother to sign a union card if asked. Canada's labour elite mistakenly
believes the problem lies in bad PR and unfriendly labour laws. "Our task is
image, we don't get a fair shake in terms of characterization of the labour
movement," CLC president Ken Georgetti told the media in October. "We have
to deal with that." If dealing with a repugnant image means attempting to
buy political favours, then the deal seems to be running full throttle
ahead. However, it isn't a matter of a fair shake; it's what's shaking
within the so-called labour movement that is the major turnoff.

In mid-2003, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union
(UFCW) unveiled a sweetheart, mid-contract deal that it cut in secret with
Loblaw Companies. When UFCW members complained to the Ontario Labour
Relations Board (OLRB), they were told by way of a formal ruling that the
deal was really none of their business because they weren't a "party" to the
agreement. The parties were the employer and the UFCW.

The OLRB vice-chair essentially said that if the union members didn't like
the deal, they could decertify the UFCW. Strangely, in the same ruling the
OLRB pointed out that the size of the bargaining unit made that eventuality
highly improbable if not impossible. Those employees would face even greater
hurdles if they chose to switch unions because the CLC has rules so onerous
that no affiliate would agree to take another union's human assets.

In British Columbia, the worthlessness of unionization was no more evident
than by the provincial government's Bill 29, the Health and Social Services
Delivery Improvement Act. With the stroke of a pen, thousands of health care
workers represented by a variety of unions received notice that their jobs
were being contracted out to companies paying close to 50% less in wages and
benefits. Hungry for a piece of the dues action, the Industrial, Wood and
Allied Workers (IWA) signed a sweetheart deal allowing it to be the
union-tax collector for the lower-paid workers. That move effectively
created a scenario similar to the one faced by Loblaw employees.

Meanwhile, the IWA is widely rumoured to have its members up for sale, and
the UFCW is reportedly one of the suitors. That pending sale may explain the
bizarre move whereby the IWA joined with employers to ask the government to
enact legislation that will force a settlement in their current contract
talks. I say bizarre because employers and unions routinely agree to binding
arbitration without asking politicians to create law to facilitate it.

Also out West, in an apparent suicide attempt, B.C.'s Marine and Ferry
Workers Union stepped outside of the box and defied the B.C. Labour
Relations Board (BCLRB) by launching a full-blown strike and momentarily
defying a BCLRB back to work order. In response, the government has promised
a law to create a much smaller and stronger box to lock that union in.

As unions implode, they may create a momentary vacuum, but employee activism
will inevitably emerge to fill the void. What form that activism takes
remains to be seen but companies have no reason to feel secure. Those who do
not pay attention to these shifting tides will find themselves in deep

Hugh Finnamore, a former union official, is now a senior consultant at
Vancouver-based Workplace Strategies Inc. E-mail:

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