Unions and the New Economy

Today is International Workers’ Day, more commonly known as May Day, an international celebration of workers’ rights. I don’t belong to a union (but am fortunate to work for an employer that treats and compensates me fairly). In fact, I’ve never belonged to one (edit: in the workplace – forgot to note the Students’ Union). In this, I’m hardly alone. Less than 30% of jobs in Canada are unionized. In the United States, it’s far lower – 11% in 2010 .

Unions have shifted over time, seeing the predominant ones become much more public sector and white collar than its blue collar origins. In Canada and the United States, its traditional base has been eroded by outsourcing and mechanization of many blue collar jobs over the past number of decades. While unions like the SEIU and AFL-CIO still exert political muscle in the United States, the union vote and power is in most places not what it once was.

I believe unions play a valuable role in protecting and empowering citizens. Yet, my opinion is far from the consensus. Polling in the United States shows public opinion to be nearly evenly split in terms of approval. In Canada, 2008 polling saw strong support for unions, but also concern around their level of political activity and influence. Additionally, high-profile strikes by public sector unions have often been met with hostility from the public.

The striking staff at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, site of the longest on-going strike.

To grow their support, I see three key challenges in ensuring they continue to play a key role.

Adapting to the Changing Nature of the Workforce
The traditional union structure makes sense for workers who spent many years (if not their entire career) with one employer (or in one industry – like a teachers/nurses union). However, the overall workforce is becoming much more fluid, with people moving jobs (and/or industries) frequently, and often switching between full-time employment and self-employment.

Sara HorowitzFreelancers Union is a good example of a model that can work for industries with highly-mobile workers. Unions representing performing artists are another.

Engaging the Most Vulnerable Employees in the Workforce
I’ve long believed the greatest strength in unions lies in providing job protection and a voice for the most vulnerable workers in our economy – those who may struggle to represent themselves. In the 19th century, it was miners and steelworkers and other labourers whose lives, in some cases, were literally at risk every day. As we move towards a creative economy, many service-oriented industries consist of workers with little job protection. They may not face the same dangers every day, but many do put up with unsafe or unhealthy working conditions due to the lack of available options, and the ease with which they could be replaced. Today, the working poor can often be found in Wal-Marts, fast food restaurants, and other service industries that see high turnover. I would argue that it is these workers who would benefit the most from a unionized environment (or one with greater protection in some form).

(This CAW-CEP discussion paper provides some excellent insight into the future of the union movement as well).

Winning the Political Battle
Unions are a popular lightning rod (especially for conservative politicians), and will continue to see their role and their rights under attack. The 2011 protests in Wisconsin showed that unions can still have a very powerful impact; James Fallows wrote about how they could work with young activists (such as the Occupy movement) to affect change. Doing this effectively to benefit all workers would be both a progressive move, and help unions win the public relations battle.

Happy May Day. Here’s Jon Langford’s song “Plenty Tough, Union Made” from the Wisconsin protests:


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