Union Myths and Realities

You’ll find unions working with organizations like United Way, providing scholarships for young people to go to university, providing unemployment counseling and promoting sports for children. No matter where you look, unions are involved in things that make the community better.

Why are people forced to join unions and pay dues?

It takes a lot of courage for workers to organize a union. The employer uses all kinds of tactics and strategies to try and persuade their workers not to join. The employer usually resorts to fear and intimidation tactics to keep the union out and in many instances workers get fired. Despite this employer opposition, unions exist because the majority of workers believe very strongly that the introduction of a union at their workplace will help to better their lives through better working conditions, wages and benefits.

When the majority of people in a workplace vote for a union the law requires that unions must represent all people in the workplace — even those that voted against the union. People who oppose unions are not forced to join the union or sign membership cards. They are required, however, to pay dues. There are several reasons for this.

People pay municipal, provincial and federal taxes whether or not they voted for the person or political party in office. If every worker in a workplace benefits from a union contract, everyone should pay dues. If a union wins a wage increase, it goes to every worker, not only to those that pay dues. If the union negotiates other benefits such as vacation, entitled leave or job security, the same holds true.

What are union dues used for?

Union members pay dues to finance the operation of their union. Union dues pay for a variety of services, including operating a local union, costs associated with bargaining, hiring staff, legal services, health and safety programs, strike funds, education and training and per capita portions to central bodies such as the BC Federation of Labour or  the Canadian Labour Congress. If the union costs nothing, it probably wouldn’t be worth anything

Another large portion of most unions’ dues is spent on “organizing the unorganized”. About one-third of all Canadians workers are represented by unions. There are literally millions of people without protection and employers are able to use these workers to undercut hard-won and decent union contracts by operating non-union workplaces and cheaper competition to already unionized establishments. How much unionized workers receive in wages and benefits depends on how strongly unions have organized the industry or service.

Why are unions always making unreasonable demands?

What is a reasonable wage demand? One that meets the workers’ needs? One based on the employer’s ability to pay? One that’s tied to productivity? Or one that the media thinks is responsible?

The fact is that nobody has yet devised a workable formula for determining wage increases that would be considered reasonable by the workers, by their employer, by the public, by the press and by the government. One group or another will always be unhappy.

Besides, most employers – except occasionally when in genuine financial stress – still refuse to open their books to union negotiators. Unions are thus denied access to the data on profits, productivity and labour costs that they must have in order to formulate “reasonable” demands. The best alternative for you and other workers in our private enterprise society is to go for as much as they think their members are entitled to.

Why are unions only interested in money?

Who isn’t? Only people with enough money not to worry about lay-offs, job security or on-the-job injuries don’t have these worries.

But unions have always been concerned about more than wages. Some of the first goals of organized labour were better working conditions: eliminating the child sweatshops, expanding public education and reducing the number of working hours. Over the years, labour has led the fight for Medicare, for workers’ compensation, for occupational health laws, tougher human rights codes and equal pay for work of equal value.

Unions have also supported all serious attempts to make jobs less boring and more safe. Productivity increases when work has more meaning, absenteeism falls and the economy and community are improved.

Unions must always be responsive to their memberships’ needs and desires. Today union members say they are primarily concerned with issues such as job security, health and safety, retraining and education. It should come as no surprise that union demands reflect these concerns.

Why are unions strike happy?

Unions negotiate for agreements – not strikes. No union wants a strike. Strikes develop when both sides can in no other way reach an agreement. To union members, a strike means sacrifice to themselves and their families. Workers won’t go on strike unless the issues involved are so great they are worth the sacrifice. Unions conduct membership votes before taking strike action and a strike occurs only after the approval of a clear majority of workers.

Most unions measure their success by the extent to which they can avoid strikes, and they do manage to settle 97 percent of contract negotiations without a strike. Despite that record, strikes are controversial and controversy makes news. This, no doubt, is why many people think strikes are the rule rather than the exception.

Aren’t unions too big and powerful?

Comparing “BIG UNIONS” to “BIG CORPORATIONS” and “BIG GOVERNMENT” is a favorite trick of the media and other groups like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

“Big” and “powerful” are relative terms. In actual fact, most Canadian unions are quite small, and together they represent less than 40% of the country’s workforce.

Even the largest unions, in terms of size and resources, pale by comparison with multinational corporations such as Teck, Wal-mart, CN Rail or General Motors.

In Canada, few politicians ever dare interfere with “free enterprise”. Business can set their prices, sell their products and throw their money into anything from advertising to a new executive washroom without supervision or restraint. Governments will usually give them money or tax breaks to do this.

Politicians feel differently about unions. They have required legal certification, formal backing from a majority of the workers they wish to represent and a long, complicated legal process before they can call a strikes. Governments can intervene in strikes, force workers back to the job and impose a settlement. They can fine or jail workers who refuse to work. Do you ever see governments try those tactics on companies?

Unions were good at one time but haven’t they outlived their usefulness?

The Toronto Globe and Mail made this argument on May 6, 1886. Over 100 years have passed and unions continue to grow and become a more acceptable part of Canadian life. The simple truth is that unions will never be out of date so long as employers and governments control the lives of others by determining how much they earn or work or what kind of job they are entitled to.

Today employers are pushing even harder for lower safety standards, lower wages and less benefits. Just look at the six-dollar training wage. It is more important than ever to recognize that without a collective agreement outlining the conditions of work, wages and benefits, the employer has the right to treat its workers in any way it wants.

Why is the public the innocent victim of strikes by public sector workers?

Unions in the public sector have to bargain directly with government officials or their agents. Who are these officials representing if not the public? The legal process, that must be followed before a legal strike can begin, are all imposed by government in the name of the public. Unions simply follow these rules.

When government refuse to bargain in good faith, unions representing public employees have no alternative than to exercise their right to strike, when their members vote for this action.

People who may be hurt by such strikes should make an effort to look at both sides of the dispute – to determine if their employees’ demands are justified. If this is clearly the case, then public pressure should be directed at governments to offer a fair settlement, rather than force unions out on strike because it might be politically convenient; or once a strike is enacted, impose back-to-work legislation or strike-breaking laws.

Don’t unions protect the lazy, the people who should be fired?

No union contract requires an employer to keep a worker who is lazy, incompetent or constantly absent or tardy. What the union does is make sure dismissals are for ‘just cause’ – for real reasons – not personality clashes between supervisors and employees.

Older employees can’t be fired as they once were when they‘re considered less useful to their employer. Women who have a union can’t suffer discrimination from their boss because the boss fears they may get pregnant. In this way, unions do protect people’s jobs. That’s the purpose of a union.

Some management people understand this and support it. Robert S. Hatfield, former chairman of the Continental Group, one of the world’s biggest firms says, “When I first started working in a factory in 1936…The whim of the boss could make the difference, and sometimes that meant swallowing a lot of abuse, with no way to talk back… It came home to me then, as never before, that human dignity is very precious….Now when I think of the humanity and dignity that underpins the relationships today of all working people… I know that our unions have a lot to be proud of, because it was the union movement that spearheaded the effort and made it happen.”

Why do these myths about unions exist?

Right-wing think tanks and anti-union groups funded by big corporations not only have nothing nice to say about unions, they are interested in seeing unions and workers’ power disappear.

Why? So they won’t have to pay you a fair wage. So it becomes easier to fire you. So they don’t have to provide safe workplaces. So there’s no one raising the alarm about how corporations operate.

Well funded, these groups along with other employer associations lobby governments for a lower minimum wage, call for reduced child labour standards, want longer work weeks with fewer benefits and want laws changed to make it harder for you to join a union. They see unions and workers as standing in their way. In this case they’re right