Labour needs a new image

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sun Apr 10 2011.   Glenn Wheeler

The state of Canadian labour is so bad that even we unionists now realize there’s a problem.

The question is, do we have the courage to dispense with the old dogmas and deal with the world as it is and not as it was? We’d better find out — and soon.

Look around. This year, we have a federal election and votes in half the provinces but nowhere is labour a political player. What we say does not matter.

In Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford has successfully portrayed us as spoiled, selfish and concerned only about sucking as much as possible out of the public teat, the taxpayer be damned.

And if it’s true that U.S. trends eventually make their way north, we should be especially afraid. Only a slim majority of Americans (52 per cent) say they approve of unions, according to Gallup. More Americans trust small business than unions. Ouch.

Organizers of Saturday’s rally in Toronto invoked the spectre of recent attacks on unions in Wisconsin as a taste of what our mayor has in store for us here.

But we have to do more than talk to ourselves and attribute our problems to others — right-wing politicians, the corporate media, globalization . . . We are at our most creative when we’re searching for others to blame.

Word is that the organizers of the Canadian Labour Congress national convention in Vancouver later this spring are planning a panel discussion on media coverage of unions. Will it be more of the same or will we find the intellectual courage to confront the ways in which our own shortcomings are partly the cause of our sorry state of affairs?

Let’s begin with the way we communicate with our audiences. Business and government adapted far sooner to the new media and only now are unions harnessing the power of Twitter and Facebook. There’s still a reluctance to use new tools for organizing for fear the target employer will find out what we’re up to. Guess they don’t notice us at the front gate giving out leaflets.

But the problem is even more profound than that. We do not have a narrative relevant to the 21st century. Our imagery and ethos are rooted in an industrial yesterday when the heroes of our movement struggled for the things we now take for granted — employment standards and health and safety protection.

Certainly, there are still too many bad employers out there. But smart non-union workplaces now realize they can get even more out of their staff if they treat them well — and minimize the risk of a union drive at the same time. We have to make unions attractive to those who work for both good and bad employers.

While we’re at it, let’s correct the image that unions are interested only in defending workers who screw up and have no commitment to professional excellence. Yes, we have a legal duty to serve our members who get in trouble with their employer and are being disciplined or terminated.

But unions also have an interest in helping their employers do well, so being a union member is not about slacking off. If the boss is bringing in lots of business, we can get a better deal at the bargaining table. We should tell employers — and our members — that the union label indicates dependable, hard-working employees committed to the success of the enterprise. We’re all in it together.

Unfortunately, many unionists are ambivalent about business and the profit motive. They’re more comfortable portraying themselves as part of “the left.” It’s long past time we brought unions into the mainstream, where most of the public — and our members — see themselves.

Ultimately, unions are about providing a service. You hire a lawyer to deal with your house purchase and an accountant to do your income taxes, confident that they’re looking out for your interests. Unions represent you in matters relating to your work so that you don’t have to make your own deal with the employer.

Unions have a pretty good track record in delivering for our members, who on average enjoy higher wages and better benefits than non-union workers. We have a lot to be proud of.

Now it’s time for us to retool for a new age. Let’s dare to have a candid conversation about how to do it.

Glenn Wheeler is in-house legal counsel for a labour union. The views expressed are his own and may not reflect his employer’s.

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