Neumann on the Union Advantage

In an op-ed printed in today’s Toronto Star, Ken Neumann (Canadian Director of the United Steelworkers) outlines how unions provide a better economic deal and more workplace rights for both union members and unorganized workers.


Unions not only win better wages but also help weave a stronger social safety net

May 05, 2009

Canadian national director of the United Steelworkers

As the economic crisis continues relentlessly, the spotlight on unions has focused mainly on what unionized workers are prepared to give up if it means either saving their own job or someone else’s.

The union advantage has always been in the area of wages, benefits and having the collective leverage to gain more rights, respect and dignity in the workplace. With that kind of advantage balanced against management’s rights and pressure to cut costs, unions like the United Steelworkers (USW) have championed issues such as adequate pensions, anti-harassment, health and safety, training and much more, advances that rarely make it into media reports riveted on the crisis of the moment.

A union can transform a low-wage job into a good job. Unionized workers’ wages in 2007 averaged $23.58 an hour compared with $18.98 for non-unionized workers. A full 80 per cent of unionized workers have negotiated pensions compared with 27 per cent of non-unionized workers, who do not have any ability to negotiate pensions or benefits.

Generally, unionized workers have better job security, and they are part of an entire structure focused on standing up for working people and defending them against arbitrary treatment, including various forms of discrimination and favouritism. The union can create a more level field and a work environment that equitably manages stress and workload. That kind of environment also creates conditions that build strong, fully integrated communities.

All of that union advantage is challenged by an economic situation in which jobs are disappearing at an alarming rate. The USW and other unions are campaigning for more government action to stimulate job retention and creation, as well as more protection and support for unemployed workers – whether they have a union or not.

Despite the downturn, belonging to a union – and everyone has that right in law – is still better than being without one. There is a benefit not only to union members themselves but to the economy as a whole. Good, unionized jobs keep the wheels of an advanced, democratic society turning. Unionized jobs not only mean the ability to purchase goods and services, they also put money and participation back into the community through a variety of sponsorships and involvements. In many communities, the union hall itself is the scene of community meetings, weddings, banquets, dances, sporting events and more.

The bottom line is that without good (unionized) jobs, the middle class begins to disappear, and along with it our ability to support continued economic and social development. It is a race to the bottom – a race that Canadians must not agree to enter.

An economy based on good jobs and sustainable growth is exactly what was missing in the Great Depression prior to industrial unionism and the struggle for economic justice. There were no pensions, no Employment Insurance, no publicly funded, universal, accessible health care.

It may be argued that the current economic crisis is not as debilitating as the one in the 1930s, but that is only because of the social safety net that unions have fought to maintain in the face of the conservative politics that would privatize health care, cut back welfare, shortchange EI even further and hobble our ability to recover from recession without being ruined.

In recent years, the United Steelworkers in particular has been very involved in corporate restructuring, found purchasers for companies on the brink of extinction and negotiated closure agreements that include such provisions as enhanced severance pay, preferential hiring rights, notice of closure etc. We have also negotiated language aimed at restoring or preserving the union’s bargaining rights in anticipation of the business resuming.

When concessions from workers are demanded by employers, the union is in the position to get the employer to justify its actions by opening its books. From there, the union has the expertise and the power to negotiate on behalf of its members for the best outcome possible. Workers without a union are at a far greater disadvantage.

Also, it must never be forgotten that the minimum protections under the law that non-union workers can access – if they know their rights – are the result of the work of unions to raise those standards for all workers. In Ontario, the health and safety laws that apply to every workplace are the direct result of battles taken up by the USW in the 1970s. Subsequent improvements to those laws and to workers’ compensation are also the result of collective action by unions.

The United Steelworkers injured workers’ program has recovered literally millions of dollars for Steelworkers, former Steelworkers and their survivors who have not been dealt with fairly by the compensation system. Again, workers without a strong union to go to bat for them are unlikely to see justice done – unless they pay privately for it. The process of demanding that kind of justice beyond the workplace is ongoing.

It is important for Canadians to understand how unions function in a democratic society, especially now as we struggle with this troubled economy.

Yes, there is power in a union.


  • What this article needs is a supplemental technical briefing on declining union density, and a call to increase organizing drives. I’m still baffled why entire sectors have been missed, such as IT, Banking, retail, and professional services. Then there are about a dozen mortal flaws of the labour movement that nobody in the movement will acknowledge, let alone try to solve. You know – the ageism, the lack of memberships for the the unemployed, the pugilistic demeanor, the antiquated internal management practices. I could go on, but that’s plenty for people to over-react to.

  • If memory serves me correct did not the unions spend a boat-load of cash trying to organize the banks a while back?

    Pugilistic demeanour? Some of us find them too pliant and pragmatic!

  • Stuart Murray

    I said demeanor because I’m more talking about the way labour comes across in the media in the context of the strike threat and picket lines. Since the main tool of bargaining is the strike threat, people normally assume that the way labour gets things done is “our bully vs. their bully.” That’s not how things look in joint committees or during an arbitration, but that is the public face of unionism. The cold war is over and anti-bullying campaigns have flourished, so a certain fraction of people will simply take a pass on unions.

  • Since the main tool of bargaining is the strike threat, people normally assume that the way labour gets things done is “our bully vs. their bully.”

    But your initial post made it sound as though this was problem unions could overcome if they would just deal with it. How do you run a civil picket line in the face of buses full of scabs?

    I once heard joke that we would have a 100 percent unionisation rate in Canada if unions would only pledge to never go on strike or in any way act confrontational towards the employer.

  • Stuart said:

    “I’m more talking about the way labour comes across in the media in the context of the strike threat and picket lines”

    Travis is absolutely correct, but the point you bring up about the media is something extra. This is the dominant discourse in the mainstream media: unions striking, usually followed by “ordinary people” being inconvenienced with an undercurrent of threat and violence eg the bus strike here in Ottawa and its effect on Algonquin College. Sometimes it’s turned into a sickly-sweet story of quioxtic heroism: “The Little Guy vs. The Big Guy” (and we’re all set up to know the Little Guy will lose in the end); I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rational and in-depth analysis of why the strikers are striking (aside from the ubiquitous “more pay/better working conditions/fairness”) and the circumstances that brought it on. Nor have I ever seen mainstream media do anything to challenge the accepted discourse that unions are somehow obsolete or what they’ve done in the past (or in the present) to make the lives of working people better.

  • The other problem is that the media, and many critics, always seem to fail to mention that the legal framework surrounding unions, unionisation and collective bargaining is highly regulated and based on an adversarial model. That unions act in an adversarial manner in an adversarial system is hardly surprising. It is like remarking that criminal defence lawyers are too adversarial when cross examining the crown’s witnesses. That is not a flaw it is a feature of the system; integral to its proper functioning.

    Even in the German industrial relations system where there is a much larger *mandatory* scope for worker representation and consultation with management the strike still remains a powerful institution for maintaining credible bargaining power on the side of workers.

    I am afraid that if you want to get rid of conflicts between workers and owners you will have to do something about that basic legal separation.

    Now of course union renewal is not a trivial matter and there is much to be done, and in agreement with Stuart, one of things unions could start to tackle is their bureaucratic organisational structures and the increasing distance between workers, locals and centrals that has come with increasing concentration through MNAs (some call them raids but that is incendiary language).

    As an outsider, democratic reform seems to be the greatest challenge and opportunity facing the union movement and to my mind is logically prior to addressing some of the other problems that Stuart raised above.

  • Stuart Murray

    Travis I totally agree with you about the comparison to Germany. We do have legally-required labour-management committees on Health & Safety, but that whole function is often ignored. I have worked on some excellent labour-management committees in Job Evaluation as well, and in Ontario those were somewhat legally mandated. Sometimes, public sector bargaining ends up in an arbitration award that mandates various committees to solve issues at conflict, but the meetings are often a puppet show if they have no teeth.

    I’m not convinced democratic reform is the root of everything. I think it’s all mashed up together with everything causing everything else. If I could pick the main culprit I would say it’s the servicing model neglecting union drives.

    The sectors covered by a cert have a big impact on the behaviour of the union, and if the sectors are limited so will the union behaviour. For example, CUPE represents Teaching Assistants at universities, and magically the whole union is committed to reducing tuition, where normally they may not. Of course the downside is that some unions are on the hook for supporting SUVs, asbestos use, and weapons manufacturing.

    The Wagner Act in the US was passed in, what, 1945? And for some reason the vast majority of private sector certs are limited to heavy industry and manufacturing. Definitely there needs to be a new legislative model that reflects a broader view of the labour force, smaller and more mobile businesses, and an expectation of labour-management collaboration (albeeit under a strike threat).

  • Stuart I agree with much of the above. No offence to the CAW but it was not exactly an easy sell trying to get Starbucks workers to join what understood as a car makers union. Yet to their (CAWs) they were one of the only ones willing to even try to organize Starbucks. However many workers could just not believe that they would actually be *serviced* well by a car union.

    When I say union renewal and democratic reform it is with the sense that unions need a “movement” underneath them to counter the narrow sectional interests and sense of overwhelming bureaucratic structure. People feel more committed when they can hold their leadership accountable to the principles of a greater movement / project. The same could be said of the NDP. So to my mind it is not the service model per se, but, rather, that such a model is no longer embedded in a larger movement, with more broad based principles and social aspirations.

    I am not even going to start in on all that is wrong with political triangulating masquerading as pragmatism and the damage that does to grass roots mobilization.

  • I’m reading what you are saying about the underlying movement, and thinking about what I read in Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.” All organizations and movements are losing volunteers, donors, and activists. Churches, newspapers, unions, clubs, alumni associations, fraternities – everyone is staying home and keeping to themselves. Putnam put some rigorous analysis into what is causing the collapse, and narrowed it down to television, longer commutes, and women’s increased labour force participation.

  • Argh Putnam!

    I would ask how it was pre-WWII when working class women worked and males engaged in migrant labour (where commutes were more than long) that there was a higher degree of social capital?

    I would also ask how it was conservatives have been so good at organizing movements during the last thirty years? Do conservative men work around the corner? Do their conservative wives stay at home without the TV turned on?

    Ok I feel a bout of rudeness coming on I will quit there.

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