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Unions and the changing workforce.

Over the many years in working in an unionized environment, you begin to ask the question about the relevance and the strength of this unit over the years.

I know many people who tear down the unions. They say they are counterproductive. More expensive than overseas labor, less productive than labor outside of its framework. This is something, that is probably not entirely true across the board. As far as knowledge and skill goes, I feel you will not find a better skilled and knowledge based worker as a union worker.

As time passes from knowing people who worked in both the Steelworkers union, and the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), there is no doubt of their ability to protect workers rights. You have the right to refuse unsafe work, and the stewards will be with you when something goes awry. They will defend you, or at least try their best to do so. You will get a second chance at these places where unions exist, while where none exists, you may not get a second chance.

Some of my relatives are anti union. Myself, I always felt the union was a good force for to help profits go to its workers. Why not keep your workers happy? Any multinational company that makes hundreds of millions of dollars, should be able to provide good benefits to the people who toil on the floor for to make it a success. Sharing is the reward. Reward is shared, not hogged by the privileged few.

What we have seen in the economic situation in the United States, Canada, and throughout Europe is a race to the bottom. Workers now have to compete with cheap labor zones. This is no secret. I am not bringing up  anything new here. Anyone knows this who works in a unionized environment, knows about the pressures of having to keep your standard of living high vs. these cheap labor zones. The pressures are there, as we have seen in developing countries huge shifts in production of newsprint (Pulp mills shut down in Canada), private generating of electricity (opening up of electricity markets), and overseas steel production.

And, with the high unemployment rates in Canada, the USA, ect, employers have been using this to their advantage in getting more out of the employee. Fear of losing their job, and not getting one back, is a great fear in an a new economy that rewards few.  Unionized employees are asked to take cuts in pay (Autoworkers). Wage freezes. Do more with less. Multi trade, which causes a loss in manpower somewhere, down the line. Inflation is usually around 3 % per year.  There is economic shifts in the undercurrent. The undermining of the developing world.

This results in a lower company moral at times. It divides union employees, about what a union is all about. What does a union truly stand for in this new century?

I remember in the old days, where people used to say "The Paper Makers Union can shut down the mills in all of Canada if the management threatens them", although I never believed this would happen. These were in the 80s, the good times for Unions.  I grew up seeing the Steelworkers going on strike for many a month, and winning wage benefits and increases over time.  I then took an oath, to be a unionized member myself, only to see "You cannot change a light bulb, that is someone else's trade", to a more highly flexible job environment (Result of union negotiations). Very high flexible job, environment, in fact. Where people are doing more things (cross trading), to help the company out.  This is a huge shift, in Union thinking.

Cut out more overtime, do more with less, has been the result of the high pressures caused by the poor economic activities in several high unemployment areas around the world.  My area has approx. 20 % unemployment.

This is the balance which puts the unions at risk. On one side of the balance, you have the company telling people it has to operate this way vs. manpower reductions to keep afloat. To be competitive. Orders are coming from somewhere to do more with less. Shareholders? CEO? Both? The company wants to reduce its operating budget, every year. Every year? Some may say that is impossible. It is a high wire, balancing act.

Job classification, I always wondered about this issue. Take this example: You work at a plant, you have your duties and responsibilities with that. You went through the process job competition for that particular job, that particular position. 10 years go by, then you are asked to do another job classification when they are sick, or taking vacation. Or just step up or step down, when someone goes out sick. This could be doing the two functions at once (Two different job classifications), or just being pushed down due to another plant closure with more people being absorbed at your plant. You see your union members doing it, while half are trying to resist. But the members that are doing it, make it harder on the ones that are resisting. Fear of others being laid off. This is understandable in certain circumstances, perhaps? I must not forget about the Health Care workers, who are now expected to cover more beds.

The health care system itself, an environment where people in brackets below your position, will challenge other brackets "we can do that" or "we can do what the RN's" or doctors can do. Union members not being totally united. It all makes for a great time for the people who are trying to reduce workforce labor, but maybe safety too. The management benefiting, of course, for the lack of "union".

Reasons for resisting. Think about safety, job protection perhaps, or a fear of doing more without compensation in the future. Or just plain loss of readiness, not knowing day to day if you will be pushed into a tougher job and need to take a shower after because of it. Pushed down into a harder, labor, position, for example when someone becomes unavailable for some reason or other.

Union people on the floor, especially shop stewards, know what is going on. What I see is a lack of motivation from them to advise people of their situations, and tell them how to deal with it. Will the union back their decisions to refuse the work, based on their job classifications alone? These job classifications were negotiated at one time? Does the company has "The right to manage", and in the end, can do what it wants?

These are questions which more and more companies and unions will have to deal with over time.

To those who say unions are garbage, I will give this answer. Unions have raised the standard of living for everyone around us. Even the minimum wage, follows the unions wages over time. If the Unions fight for benefits, they do it for the hope that maybe someday it will trickle down to everyone in the world. That someday, people all around us will have a fair, equitable work place.

I think the head of the Union organizations (the main bodies), really need to watch what their branch organizations are up to. Some unions branches pretty much roll over for the company they are dealing with. They really need to grasp, the changes that affect workers at each chapter, and membership. They need to have a more proactive approach and inform, the members on the floor, of their rights.

Till next time...


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