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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Occupy Wall Street: People, Protest, and the Nature of Social Change

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When he was younger, my dad was active in the anti-war movement. Living in Ontario, then Quebec, he spent much of his time during and after university organizing protests against the Vietnam War throughout central and northeast Canada and the United States. By the time I was born in the early ’80s, that period in his life had passed, but the remnants and legacy of the protest culture were all around me growing up. Folk musicians like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and (early) Bob Dylan were staples on the family record player. I was told stories about protests, and friends from the movement. I learned the meaning of some big words from things like a “Stop Nixon’s Genocide” button.

“His students, they just don’t see any hope”

Speaking to my dad on the phone last week, our conversation naturally turned to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I had just returned from Chicago, where I came across the Occupy Chicago march (more on this shortly), and he had just returned from Philadelphia, where he visited my cousin (a professor at a private college). The quote above is one from my cousin, about his students’ outlook and what they’ve said given the state of the economy. I think it provides excellent context to what many people (though not just the young) are feeling not just in the United States, but across the west in places where economies are struggling.

“Better watch out, they’re coming for you.”

A stranger next to me on the streets jokingly uttered these words as we crossed paths with the Occupy Chicago protest last Monday night. I was walking down Michigan Avenue, back to my hotel after the first day of Urban 2.0, still wearing a suit and tie. I stopped to take a photo and short video, then moved on.


The Occupy Chicago march on October 3rd, seen leaving Grant Park.

The joke got to my own conflicted feelings about protest. Certainly, I recognize it as a legitimate form of social and political activity, and that done properly it can be an effective form of advocacy. That said, I also think it has diminishing returns. Unless they attract incredibly large numbers of people, protests are less and less effective each time. See them often enough, and people will tune them out. I also wonder where many of them fit in as a means towards a greater end. But most importantly, I believe that for any movement to be successful, large numbers of citizens need to see themselves reflected in it. Sure, there have been large protest movements and actions in the past couple of decades (such as protesting the G8/G20), but these seemed more like outliers, protests about things that didn’t seem to materially affect most people on a day to day basis (note: I say ‘seem’ because we can argue all day about whether these actually do, but my point is most people don’t see it as something that does). Protests and this style of activism seemed disconnected from mainstream culture and concerns.

I think Occupy Wall Street is different. The economic crisis and financial inequality is something that hits a greater number of people, and in a real, tangible way they will notice every day. Also key is that to date, the protests have been civil, well-organized, and relatively free of conflict and violence. They also seem to be attracting a greater diversity of people. CNN profiled a handful of activists who by and large don’t fit the bill for what you’d expect at a protest. A lot of people are concerned about the economy, and frustrated with the benefits given to the banking industry and large corporations (they come at it from many different places, but this is the root of both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement, to name two examples). Also important – both the scale and duration make it stand out as a public protest event. A weeks-long camp-out/protest is different, and more likely to grab attention.

I see a lot of potential in this movement. This is a message that resonates with a lot of people – whether they’re regular activists, lapsed for a generation, or have never been active before. It’s a message, and a movement, that – for the time being at least – people can easily see themselves reflected in.

I can’t predict where Occupy Wall Street will go next, or how it will end, but I feel like this is a pivotal event in history. Anti-banker and financial elite movements have often defined politics in the United States (the Progressive movement in the 1890s-early 1900s, best evidenced through William Jennings Bryan and his Cross of Gold speech), and again through the Great Depression (FDR and New Deal pieces such as the Glass-Steagall Act), and to a lesser extent Canada as well (crow rates and tariffs that benefited central Canada at the west’s expense). The financial bailout seems to have reignited these tensions. The 99% is waking up, and politics and society are on the brink of a major shakeup.