On April 18, 1872, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald introduced the Trade Union Act to protect and legalize unions. Until then, unions were illegal and organizing a strike could land you in jail. But this Act heralded the beginning of shorter work weeks and protection of workers in Canada and now, almost 150 years later, we still celebrate Labour Day across Canada.
Saskatchewan has a long and colourful history that is strongly linked to unions. We are tied to some of the most monumental union moments in our country. During the Great Depression of the 30s, there was no employment insurance, and the unemployed could starve or work in government camps for subsistence wages. This led a large group of workers in BC to jump the rails and take their quarrel to Ottawa in what became known as the On to Ottawa trek. However, since the government essentially controlled the trains at the time, the trek only made it as far as Regina where the RCMP were waiting—resulting in a full-blown riot on July 1, 1935. This did, however, help jump start employment insurance in Canada.
We are also a farming, mining, and manufacturing province. Our capital city was manufactured rather than organically grown—one of only an exceedingly small number of major cities that do not appear on a major waterway. Sure, we have Wascana Lake, but we built that by hand in the 1930s in response to, you guessed it, labour issues.
Over time, the question of union vs. business has been as sensitive a topic as supporting either the Maple Leafs or the Habs, but for any business to thrive, labour and management need to work together. So, when you talk about unions and management you can inevitably start pulling politics into the conversation. The NDP have usually been very pro-union, whereas conservative governments tend to be less pro-union and more pro-business.
Now, how do we talk about this subject in a way that will not inflame people and have them buckling down to defend their point of view rather than open their minds to the idea that we might have a huge business advantage here in Saskatchewan—and it is the strength of our unions.
Step one is to ensure that people understand that unions want at least one identical thing as businesses: a thriving economy. The business of unions requires happy workers paying their union dues and that only happens when times are good. But as we have seen here through several decades of the business cycle—when times are good, unions can slow down expansion and be a sort of brake ensuring things do not expand beyond their limits too quickly. When times are bad, Unions can be a backstop to ensure they do not get too bad. Where things go off the rails (for lack of a better phrase) is when union and management drift apart from what they have in common and focus on what they do not have. Or when third parties get involved and purposefully drive a wedge for their own purposes.
United Steelworkers District #3 director Stephen Hunt discusses the importance of steelworkers for Saskatchewan’s industries. “I feel that steelworkers are a huge component of the Saskatchewan economy. They drive big payrolls and create big opportunities. In this globalized world, companies can often go to the lowest common denominator, so we have to ensure that we’re competitive,” says Hunt. “I think there’s a maturity now that we can have disagreements from time to time, but generally we’ll try to resolve things for the betterment of our members. I often say this, when you negotiate a collective agreement, it’s for our members, their families, and the communities. So, we’re all in this together.”
Hunt sees politics interfering in issues that should be better discussed. The pipeline debate he finds particularly disconcerting. “What I ask some people on the green side of the debate is, and it’s not that we’re not environmentally concerned, but our attitude is that you just don’t turn the switch off. Let’s stop making everything in Canada and get it all offshore? It makes no sense to me and I know it doesn’t make any sense to our members,” says Hunt. “I tease politicians and tell them that—when you flush your toilet, it doesn’t go by wifi—or that natural gas heating your house doesn’t just float through the air. So, people have to start connecting dots.”
He also has much to say on union and management relations, “We don’t manage the companies, but to improve productivity, consult with your workers. They’re the ones doing the work. Especially if you’re paying them a decent wage and treating them with respect. You’ll get the respect back and that’s where productivity will rise. One of the biggest cost savings is being able to retain good workers.”
Labour in the USA
U.S. President Joe Biden has established himself as the most pro-union American president in history. His views are strongly linked to a belief that the decline in the labour movement has correlated to a decline in the American middle class. Biden has promoted labour in many public addresses and taken executive steps like organizing a White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment.1 Neo-liberal doctrines and corporatism that has dominated the United States and other western nations is meeting more pushback. Trickle-down economics popularized in the 1980s and carried through the decades has proven itself ineffective and now, in arguably the most business focused country in the world—the sitting president is advancing a labour agenda. It speaks to how the times are changing and populist views are coming to the forefront.
With a topic this polarizing, it comes down to one’s core beliefs and where they stand. Being anti-union puts you in the mercantilist camp believing in productivity and profitability and strengthening of business. Being pro-union is believing in adequate compensation for labour and a secure work environment that isn’t going to be sacrificed for corporate gains. These two sides of the coin represent an ongoing struggle for balance.
In a 2017 comprehensive study, The Economics of Trade Unions: A Study of a Research Field and Its Findings, surveyed global evidence from more than 300 studies on the economic impact of unionization.2 The key findings of the study showed that unions impact profits—but not productivity—and more importantly they insure against growing wealth inequality. Inequality is bad for business because it discourages investment in education and innovation—two key ingredients required for success in the modern business world.
Naturally, profitability drops because unions are securing higher wages for their members, but the study shows that labour is not bad for business because by representing worker’s interests, companies become more attractive places to work, thus increasing an employee’s commitment to business success. Plus, higher wages naturally attract better job applicants allowing management to select better workers. These principles are self-evident on paper, but they still require the labour organizations and management to act in good faith. Digressing from the intention of—an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay—through duplicity or greed on either side—collapses the relationship. The 2017 study stresses the need for cooperation. Only through cooperation is the benefit of labour working with management upheld.
The Road Forward
The same things that make a province strong can make a union, and a business, strong. We need to look out for one another. We need to ensure we take care of one another. We need to make sure we are valued for the work we do and the services we provide. If we are all rowing in the same direction, we can succeed as management and labour together.
1Biden stakes claim to being America’s most pro-union president ever, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/may/02/joe-biden-unions
2The Economics of Trade Unions: A Study of a Research Field and Its Findings, Routledge, https://www.routledge.com/The-Economics-of-Trade-Unions-A-Study-of-a-Research-Field-and-Its-Findings/Doucouliagos-Freeman-Laroche/p/book/9781138888302