Dalhousie University employees, who have since settled with the university, held an information picket outside the Dal Sub building in Halifax earlier this month. (INGRID BULMER / Staff)
The year 2012 will be remembered as one of labour unrest.
Metro Transit, Dalhousie University (twice), Labatt Breweries, Maritime Paper, Air Canada and The Chronicle Herald have all been involved in tough labour negotiations.
What is the common variable across this labour unrest? Money is at the root of many of these negotiations, but it’s usually deeper.
I am currently in a union for the first time in my career. We almost went on strike last year and it wasn’t a fun-filled experience. A deal was struck at the very last minute and it both angered and relieved many people on all sides.
Do unions still make sense in 2012? I think so, but only for certain sectors and industries. According to www.nationmaster.com, we are ninth in the world in trade union membership. Sweden leads the way at 82 per cent.
Historically, unions have played an important role in defining the Canadian workplace. Union leaders are quick to point out that many employee benefits enjoyed by all came about because of the labour movement.
According to Statistics Canada and the Globe and Mail, union membership in our country grew steadily until 1982 when it peaked at 38.6 per cent. Almost 30 years later in 2010 this number had fallen to 27.5 per cent.
Statistics Canada began asking about union membership in 1997 when 16.7 per cent of private sector workers were unionized. By 2010, the rate had fallen to 14.1 per cent. In the United States only seven per cent of private sector employees carry a union card.
There is a staggering difference between Canada’s private and public sectors, as 75 per cent of government employees were unionized in 2010. There was basically no change from the 74.6 per cent rate in 1997.
U.S. data reveals that 37 per cent of their public sector workers are union members — one half our rate.
Most Canadian union members now work in the public sector and this trend shows no sign of changing. It’s interesting that the labour movement, with its private sector roots, has evolved into mostly a public sector entity.
This has also created a bit of a paradox. An overriding goal for labour has been to get employers to share the wealth created by the firm’s employees. But this concept doesn’t fit as well for the public sector as the wealth is created by taxpayer contributions, including the union members themselves.
Witness the public reaction to the $4,000 signing bonus in the Metro Transit agreement. Strikes are tough on everyone involved. However, one of the assumptions is that if a union goes on strike, its members are forgoing income for the period of the disruption.
The signing bonus appeared to replace the lost wages and did not sit well with many of the owners of the service — the taxpayers.
And the union made no friends the day it decided to block salt trucks. It will take the public quite awhile to forget the transit strike of 2012.
The unrest is also fuelled by the fact that we currently live in a world of one per cent raises and three per cent inflation. This won’t go away as a number of contracts are coming due soon.
Some of these workers accepted one per cent raises last time around, only to watch an arbitration decision in the fall give some Nova Scotia Government Employees & General Employees Union nurses a 7.1 per cent increase over three years. That decision will influence forthcoming negotiations.
Meanwhile, a large provincial debt creates a problematic background for many future deliberations.
As the Chinese proverb states, "May you live in interesting times." Buckle up. There are more "interesting times" ahead.
Bedford resident and volunteer Ed McHugh teaches business at several post-secondary institutions.