Thursday, December 13, 2012

Unions After Bill C-377

In my favorite Shakespearian play, Hamlet, there is a scene wherein his erstwhile friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, explain that an acting company that used to enjoy great popularity has fallen on hard times. Thanks to a new craze in which troupes of child actors have become the rage, and "are most tyrannically clapped for", adults have had to go on the road to earn a living. Hamlet wonders about the child actors' futures, because their current success means they are in fact "exclaim[ing] against their own succession", since they will be out of work once they grow up.

I can't help but think about human nature's shortsightedness when I read those lines. We pursue things that aren't good for us, while we denigrate that which, in the long term, is of benefit. Take, for example, the public's attitude toward unions. More days than nought, there are columns and letters published condemning unions and their well-paid members, envy and resentment seeping through the pages, seemingly in a senseless quest to bring people down to the lowest pay and working conditions possible.

It is, of course, this irrational impulse to which Bill C-377, the thinly-disguised union-busting legislation passed on Wednesday evening by the Harper government, plays. Clothed in the rhetoric typical of a workers' rights-hating regime, the law will require labour organizations to provide extensive details, such as the salaries of top union leaders, to the Canada Revenue Agency, which will publish the information on its website.

All designed, of course, to stoke even more public contempt for those enjoying better working conditions and pay than those in non-union environments.

And yet, as observed by Thomas Walkom and David Climenhaga, unions themselves must bear some of the responsibility for this current sorry state.

Writes Walkom:

What’s really killing unions is not the political right. It is that, for too many workers, organized labour is no longer relevant.

In 2011, federal figures show, 31 per cent of Canadian workers overall were unionized. Of these, the vast majority are middle-aged or older. For younger workers between the ages of 15 and 24, the rate of unionization is just under 16 per cent.

Compounding the problem, says Walkom, is the fact that union membership is concentrated in the public sector, with only 16 per cent of private sector workers belonging to unions, largely due to the collapse of manufacturing jobs and the proliferation of part-time and contract work in North America.

He adds,

Unions — which understandably pay attention first and foremost to their own members — haven’t lobbied hard enough to tighten up the employment standards legislation that allows these low-wage practices.

Nor have most unions figured out a way to deal with a new kind of workplace, where people no longer labour in large factories and where strikes can be circumvented by technology.

Echoing this idea, in The Rabble David Climenhaga writes:

Ironically, while most unions don't do enough to represent working people beyond their own membership, what little they do to fight for the powerless in society is why authoritarian neoconservatives like Harper have such a hate on for labour and other groups that speak out for traditional Canadian values.

So one worthwhile response to the effort by the Conservatives to smother unions in red tape is to fight harder for real progressive causes, not to mention never again signing a lousy two-tier contract that leaves young workers with the short end of the stick to preserve the past victories of older workers. No, an injury to one remains an injury to all, people!

Perhaps the final consideration should be given to those who "most tyrannically clap[...]' for the kind of repressive legislative agenda epitomized by Bill C-377. In a jurisdiction near you, you can probably look forward to more of this.


  1. When unions sign two tier contracts, they sell the next generation short, Lorne. They become part of what Frank Graves calls the "gerontocracy."

    Unions don't have a future if the next generation sees that unions are not working for them.

  2. Let's hope that the passage of Bill C-377 is a wakeup call for all unions, Owen.

  3. They are also stoking distrust if not total disdain for First Nations with a similar demand for transparency of their governments. I do like Climenhaga's suggestion that the same transparency rules be applied to professional associations, non-profits and charities, and private sector businesses. Perhaps opposition members should introduce such bills and shine a light on the Harper hypocrisy. And if such bills passed, just think of the jobs that would be created for the CRA to administer all that accountability data on their web site.

    1. I love your idea of an Opposition bill, Beijing. I'm just not sure that either of the other major parties has the intestinal fortitude to do it.

  4. Widening the gap. Always widening the gap.
    Eventually the peasants get out their pitchforks and light up their torches.

  5. Isn't there a point in common law that laws are to be applied equally to everybody.
    If this act doesn't impose the same obligations on all the parties at the bargaining table I don't see how it can be considered a legal act of parliament.
    But of course I am no lawyer and maybe basic legal principles no longer apply in Canada.

  6. I am as bewildered as you are, Dan. But perhaps someone will take up Beijing's suggestion, seen above.