Now that my career as a civil servant is over, I seem to be in the mood to do some summing up. I recall -- with dismay at how quickly the years have fled -- the day in June, 1975 that I began working for the City of Belleville, Ontario.
It is with less assurance that I recollect my attitude towards unionism, but I remember declining membership. Yes, of course I would subscribe dues as per the union contract but I was not interested in becoming an active member. I had, I thought, little need for or patience with bellicosity or rhetoric.
Five years passed before I changed my mind. Eventually I came to understand how much my pleasant work life and salary owed to union accomplishments. In addition, I recognized that non-unionized workers and administrators benefited from union benchmarks - no matter what they said or thought!
Indeed, I grew so enamoured of the union concept that I spent years badgering people about expanding the union mandate. I had also come to realize that unionism - in spite of its accomplishments - has sorely and needlessly handicapped itself from its very beginning.
• There is little value in wage increases if they are immediately neutralized by inflation and marginal tax rate increases.
• Millions of workers have been given an increasingly ineffectual 'negotiate or we'll strike!' tooth to brandish ... the consequence of unionists addressing only half of the production -- consumption cycle.
• Both provincial and federal governments have been quietly capitalizing upon union activities:
• Wage increases ratchet up workers' incomes. Inflation erodes these 'successes.'
• Coupled to progressive tax schedules, these empty increases enlarge tax revenues without representation, debate or legislation.
How devastating has this been? In Derailed, David Berguson and Barry Cooper describe the results: "The average Canadian family was paying $1,900 more in taxes in 1993 than it was in 1984. ...In 1961 Tax Freedom day fell on May 3rd; by 1974 it came more than a month later, on June 8. In 1992, it came on July 7.(1)
A further example is available. Union negotiators have typically insisted upon percentage wage increases, when any grade schooler could explain why such increases benefit high earners more than low. This negotiating stance has authenticated income disparity within bargaining units, the widening rich -- poor gap and inflationary pressures.
Of course, the real fun begins later. Administrators -- especially civil servants under public scrutiny -- have been glad to restrict themselves to 'union increments' -- there being satisfactorily more benefit in 5 per cent of $80,000 than in 5 per cent of $30,000.
The result has been a ballooning of wages, with the top ever further from the bottom.
Considering such singular benefits, it seems likely that governments, corporations and administrators would have invented trade unionism, had workers not thought of it on their own. The only way unions can upset these ironic arrangements is to organize both consumers and workers. With leverage on both ends of the production -- consumption process, unionism could accomplish distributed well-being, rationalize the retail sector and promote ecological sanity.
The failure to accomplish this is not the only oversight unionism has been guilty of. Rank and file unionists need to think hard about what is left of their solitary bargaining chip -- the threat of work stoppage. It is abundantly clear that wage increments are a thing of the past. Automation and free trade agreements place every worker in competition with overwhelming adversaries:
• The willingness of off-shore workers to supply products to First World nations for desperately small wages,
• The willingness of automated machineries to work for no wages at all.
Unionists also need to understand that robotics are becoming increasingly less expensive -- especially when employees' ancillary costs are taken into account. 'World-class' employers do not just look at wage scales but consult the entire overhead burden represented by workers.
The immediate question? How can trade unionism continue to make its case to dues-paying employees, who have not enjoyed real wage increases or job security for years? We should look for a waning of trade unionism, as locals lose the interest, faith and engagement of a waning population of disgruntled members.
As this occurs, agendas and processes of marginalization will accelerate. There will come a time, and it is closer than we think, when trade unionism will be seen to have safely vanished and the floodgates of rationalizing, downsizing and ultra-conservatism will be opened. This will spell the end of the middle class -- the partitioning of First World nations into the ancient dichotomy of the fabulously wealthy and the grievously poor.
WHAT TO DO?
Union myopia notwithstanding, consumer unionism has always been an essential component of any wholesome economy. Consumer unionism alone offers every person enhanced economic leverage. Consumer unionism alone is able to empower not only the fully-employed, but a growing population of marginalized, part-time, retired, unemployed and welfare recipients.
Consumer unionism alone can breath life into the moribund trade union movement.
Unhappily, the prospect facing the middle and lower classes is now so critical that more is required. Hard pressed employees need to consider the merits of regional unionism. Labour unions have not made the best use of their potential solidarity and bargaining power. Instead of organizing community locals into regional networks, unionism opted for a hierarchal structure wherein bargaining units in similar workplaces -- no matter how geographically remote -- convened such organizations as CUPE, OPSEU, CAW, CUPW ... . The reasons for doing so are obvious, but they have not prevailed against the weakness of opting for tenuous solidarity with remote workplaces.
In addition, this imprudent arrangement hatched union bureaucracies, provincial and national union offices, conferences, conventions and junkets by local intelligentsia. However pleasant these moveable feasts have been for participants, they have failed to shore up unionism's potency at bargaining tables.
In fact, it is arguable that these hierarchal arrangements -- which exactly replicate the structure of corporate and government bureaucracies -- have contributed to the crises confronting the middle and lower class. What has happened is that unionism sorted itself into executives on the top and the rank and file on the bottom.
As unionists, we should have anticipated how dis-empowering and spiritually damaging such arrangements are. Our endemic failures of enthusiasm and involvement have an important source in this arrangement. There are other factors of course, not the least of which is that it seems increasingly clear that union dues, participation and solidarity have all been in vain.
Intuitively, regional networks of bargaining units would address many of these difficulties:
• Regional unionism would unite workers in unprecedented solidarity. They would have one another in view. They would share community concerns and agendas. Rhetoric and demands would be tempered because wages, benefits...etc. would be seen as coming out the pockets of community consumers ... i.e., their own pockets.
• Regional unionism would gain political and economic options. Locals could initiate strike activities and enjoy mutual support in the form of community picket lines and local political pressure.
• The fact of community-wide consortiums of workers would take its place at bargaining tables, offsetting new spectres on managements' side ... the robot, the computer, the desperate third world worker transparently victimizable because of international free trade agreements.
• The evolution of consumer unionism could proceed with alacrity. Regional unionism would automatically achieve the structures and communication channels facilitating this evolution
• Finally, regional unionism would have wholesome ramifications for communities, political life, and the exploding population of marginalized people. Participants would gain a provocative set of arguments and challenges ... a vast improvement over the primitive gesticulations unionists have had to be content with.
In short, regional and consumer unionism could give life to the unprecedented possibility defined by the middle class -- a moral world of the neither rich nor poor.
1. David J. Berguson and Barry Cooper Derailed (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1994) p. 162.