The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process

Relatively recently,  Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), wrote an article praising collective bargaining:

Collective bargaining is good for everyone

December 23, 2019

By Hassan Yussuff, as published in the Globe and Mail.  

The holidays aren’t solely about gift-giving and spreading good cheer. Many workers find themselves having to walk a picket line around this time of year.

Everywhere you look these days, teachers, public transit workers, railway and refinery workers seem to be involved in some kind of job action as contracts expire and end-of-year negotiations fail.

It can be frustrating for those affected and may even seem unfair that workers disadvantage the public in pursuit of better working conditions and better wages.

But make no mistake, collective bargaining is a fundamental right that helps ensure workers are getting their fair share. This is especially true when we consistently see certain governments, shareholders and corporate CEOs squeezing workers in order to improve their own bottom lines. “Without the right to pursue workplace goals collectively, workers may be left essentially powerless in dealing with their employer or influencing their employment conditions,” reads a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling upholding the right of RCMP officers to unionize.

Unsurprising that some employers, private interest groups and opinion shapers insist on back-to-work legislation whenever a group of workers flexes collective muscle. But the reality is that work stoppages are a rarity—with almost all collective agreements in Canada reached and renewed without a strike or lockout.

In fact, strikes and lockouts happen far less frequently today than in the past. Days lost to work stoppages in federal private-sector, where CN Rail workers recently struck for several days, are well below levels reached earlier this decade. For instance, in 2019, monthly work stoppages recently dipped to a low of 13 for the entire country. This is well below 2017 and 2018 averages.

Collective bargaining is functioning exactly as intended. Workers leverage their collective strength in order to influence the terms and conditions of their employment. Their efforts to stand up for themselves will often have a ripple effect, improving conditions for non-unionized workers in related industries as well as for the people they serve. When teachers oppose larger class sizes and rail engineers insist on safety improvements, the public directly benefits, too.

The significantly low unemployment rate is also contributing to renewed confidence among workers. More discouraged workers and those overcoming barriers to employment have been able to find work. The number of underemployed workers, like part-timers who prefer but can’t find full-time hours, have ebbed.

This is long overdue. For a decade, young people have been graduating into a high unemployment job market with limited prospects. Women and newcomers to Canada have struggled with a shortage of decent jobs.  While joblessness remains far too high in oil-producing provinces and the Atlantic region (in Alberta, it hovers at a shocking 20% for males under the age of 25), there are gains elsewhere. In Ontario, Quebec and BC, the improving job market has allowed wages to tick up – finally. Since mid-year, wage growth has begun to pick up, averaging over 4%.

During the last ten years of sluggish growth, high unemployment and weak wage gains, typical workers in Canada have seen very little improvement in their wages, adjusted for inflation. Flat earnings are partly responsible for the fact that debt as a share of household disposable income has doubled in the past 25 years. Furthermore, fewer workers even belong to a union at all which often translates in lower earnings and fewer benefits and little recourse to improve matters. Compounded with the rise of the gig economy and with more companies outsourcing work, it’s that much harder for workers to unionize as we are seeing at corporations like IBM and Amazon.

In the meantime, Canada’s top corporate CEOs were paid nearly 200 times what the average worker made in 2017. In 2018, quarterly operating profits reached a post-recession high. Workers have spent the ‘recovery’ simply fighting to hold onto what they have.

It’s not just unions that welcome a stronger labour market and decent wage gains. The Bank of Canada also thinks it’s a good idea. Because inflation remains well under control, it has hesitated to raise interest rates. That’s a good strategy because it helps reduce inequality and strengthens the ability of households to cope with debt, food and shelter costs.

We must all recognize that even when work stoppages do happen, they are simply evidence that the collective bargaining process is working. Despite occasional work-to-rule and walk-outs, this is actually a very good thing because it ensures workers still have a say – as they should.

To be sure, it is generally preferable for workers and their representatives to participate in collective bargaining in order to obtain a collective agreement, but the idealization of the process and the resulting collective agreement, as well as the exaggeration of the fairness of the process and the resulting collective agreement, simply ignores the reality of the power of employers and their representatives (management).

In the article, Mr. Yussuff implies that, through the collective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement, workers can obtain their “fair share.” Mr. Yussuff provides no evidence of this. A fair share is presented only in terms of shaping the collective working conditions and wages of workers but not in actually controlling those collective working conditions by those who actually do the work–economic democracy or socialism (see the series of posts on what socialism would like on this blog). Mr. Yussuff ignores the implicit or explicit management rights’ clauses in collective agreements (see numerous examples of explicit management rights’ clauses in collective agreements on this blog, for example, Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario).

There is obviously a pattern that often shows up in social-democratic rhetoric–how marvelous collective bargaining and collective agreements are (see my criticism of Jane McAlevey’s idealization of the collective bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement on this blog) as well as my review of her book in the Publications and Writings Section of this blog) .

It is interesting that Mr. Yussuff also tries to “sell” collective bargaining and collective agreements by implying that the proper functioning of collective bargaining and collective agreements results in fewer strikes:

In fact, strikes and lockouts happen far less frequently today than in the past. Days lost to work stoppages in federal private-sector, where CN Rail workers recently struck for several days, are well below levels reached earlier this decade. For instance, in 2019, monthly work stoppages recently dipped to a low of 13 for the entire country. This is well below 2017 and 2018 averages.

Collective bargaining is functioning exactly as intended.

At least Ms. McAlevey considers strike activity to often be necessary to back up the collective bargaining process whereas Mr. Yussuff’s more conservative stance considers strikes to be a last-ditch effort to be avoided if at all possible. On the other hand, both her and Mr. Yussuff consider the collective-bargaining process to be somehow capable of realizing fairness at the workplace. How this is in fact the case no trade unionist has ever explained to me in the face of the power of the class of employers.

Mr. Yussuff’s idea that workers should have a say minimizes the need for workers to have the say in their work lives–in conjunction with local communities–and not “a say”–as if they were condemned forever as a junior “partner” in the capitalist corporation.

The conservatism of the Canadian labour movement is astounding–but the left here in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) remain silent about such conservatism–since they share the same assumption of the legitimacy of the collective-bargaining process and collective agreements.

 

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