Neumann on the Union Advantage
In an op-ed printed in todayâ€™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.
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 â€“ whether they have a union or not.
Despite the downturn, belonging to a union â€“ and everyone has that right in law â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ if they know their rights â€“ 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 â€“ 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.