1 Sep 2013

Article touches on sensitive union issues

Should union members give up some of their seniority rights to make the movement more appealing to a critical public?

This is one of the controversial points touched on by an Ontario union rep, Glenn Wheeler, in an article in The Toronto Star

Wheeler also questions whether unions are spending too much money on grievances. 

Are the points raised by Wheeler things the union movement should deal with to try to drag itself into the 21st Century?

Wheeler is the Ontario legal rep. for the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union, and a former journalist with NOW magazine. 

Reprinted below is The Toronto Star article. I'm interested in your feedback.

2012 Labour Day Parade in Toronto

Unions need to get back in touch
By Glenn Wheeler
Chances are, the turnout at this year’s Labour Day parade tomorrow will be heavy with the usual suspects — stewards, union presidents and others of the committed — and light on ordinary workers.
While we unionists squawk about how Stephen Harper and his ilk are beating up on us, we scratch our heads at the extent to which our existing members have tuned us out.
Faced with the dwindling participation of our members, we resort to dolling up our websites and scheduling bargaining unit meetings for lunch time rather than the end of the day, when there’s nothing in the way of the member and the exit.
But the causes of the disengagement — and the responses to it — are more profound. Unions still have not figured out how to effectively translate the benefits of collective action to the individualistically inclined members of the iPhone generation.
We still have not found a compelling answer to the question “what have you done for me lately?”

Yes, we can point to the fact that workers who are unionized on average earn more and have better benefits than their non-union counterparts, but too often those advantages are taken for granted — as something the employer would have provided anyway.
Meanwhile, some of the key priorities and principles of the labour movement serve to alienate younger workers rather than engage them.
Top of the list of turnoffs is seniority, which, as one leading arbitration case says, “is one of the most important and far-reaching benefits which the trade union movement has been able to secure for its members.”
Certainly, seniority is sacred among union militants. But the principle doesn’t sit nearly as well with a generation raised on the importance of individual merit. Rather than something to cherish, younger workers see seniority-based promotion as the root of union-fostered unfairness that rewards oldsters who get the gig merely by sticking around.
At minimum, unions need to sell the idea of seniority more effectively and take a hard look at whether this most precious of union principles needs to be re-examined. Perhaps it’s OK to schedule vacations based on years of service, but not promotions, which should be based on merit, not longevity.
The message to our members must be that we all have to make a personal commitment to professional excellence. Being a loyal union member doesn’t mean being able to coast while we wait for our preordained reward.
As well as encouraging employers to shell out on professional development, unions would do well to spend some of our own money on training our members rather than devoting so much of our dwindling resources to labour arbitration, an ever more costly exercise that in many cases provides more benefit to the private sector lawyers who have come to dominate the scene than it does for the average union member.
No less a figure than Ontario Chief Justice Warren Winkler has said the arbitration system is off-track — it’s too expensive, takes too long and it’s characterized by hearings lengthier and, therefore, more expensive than the particular subject matter warrants.
True, we have many grateful members whose jobs we’ve saved by taking their grievance to arbitration but it is unclear how appreciative their colleagues are of the union’s efforts. “Why should we pay for it with our union dues when someone gets in trouble?” skeptical members ask.
Going forward, unions need to look for a more member-centred approach. Our members are our employers’ workers, and employee engagement (or lack thereof) is an increasing challenge for organizations that complain about the lack of loyalty of today’s workers. Studies have found that workers who like their job take fewer sick days and make fewer on-the-job errors.
They’re also more likely to be better union members. After all, if workers hate their jobs, they’re not likely to be unionist enthusiasts, since going to bargaining unit meetings requires a commitment to the workplace as well as the union.
To unlock the puzzle of union engagement, we have to look at employee engagement generally and think about how we become part of the employer’s solution. This is dangerous talk in union circles because many of our activists have no interest in inspiring workers to feel good about their jobs since this would, in effect, be getting in bed with the boss.
Yes, there are times when our relationship with the employer will be adversarial. But in an era of increasing competition and constant change, unions need to recognize that the employer’s interests in worker engagement are often our own.
Let’s be wise enough to know when it’s time to fight and when it’s not. Employee engagement is an issue on both sides of the table.
Please add your comments below. - Nick


  1. Seniority is not about sitting around. Employers must be prevented from firing workers because they are 'old'.

    grievances are not done because the worker is 'in trouble'. they are done because the employer has done something wrong.

  2. does cutting back on arbitration mean the union will not help a worker with a problem with the employer? I thought that was one of the main reasons for a union and a necessary one.

  3. Developing strategies to increase member engagement is important, and likely an ongoing issue. But please do not use this subject to promote the abandonment of, or watering down of member rights - like the seniority system or the arbitraion system - that were gained through collective bargaining or labour arbitration. And the author can be corrected on another point - enjoying one's job and one's labour union are not mutually exclusive. The author would be hard pressed to show any evidence to support his suggestion that they are.

  4. We should remember that it is (except with extremely rare Union hiring halls) the EMPLOYER that hires the Unions' members!
    Unions are thought to balance out the power imbalance between the workforce & the controller of the capital...

  5. The idea about shifting the emphasis away from seniority = higher positions makes sense to me. And finding better ways to deal with grievances rather than through lengthy legal wranglings also makes sense, as long as legitimate grievances are not simply swept under the carpet.
    The idea of looking for win-win solutions with employers is one that is SO important, I think. We must learn to overcome our adversarial political party system, and other adversarial systems, such as this one. If we don,t we will continue to argue over trifles while "Rome burns".

  6. I think the best way to engage union members is to make them feel that their input and ideas are of value. A major problem with some unions, including my own before I retired, is that as they mature, the executive listens to its own voice and no one else's. Few members have the time or inclination to run for executive positions, but to be met with a certain dismissiveness by the leadership is insulting and alienating.

    Show members that they are valued throughout the term of their negotiated contract and you will have more loyal and engaged unionists.

  7. A union acting as a "solution" for management will have zero credibility with members! (The existence of a union does that to a degree anyway through collective agreements.)

    Better not to generalize about any union or union rep. As a steward I felt I would be vulnerable if my work wasn't good. And in my large union seniority was only a factor in promotions if 2 applicants came out of the process as equally qualified. (Unless the majority of unions base promotions on seniority I wouldn't put this in the media.)

    Seniority is essential in layoffs - otherwise those will be based on favoritism -making all members afraid to defend their rights.

  8. Membership Tun-Out

    As a past executive of a small union and past executive of a small professional organization and now retired, member turn-out and support has always been a problem. However, so has it been for most membership driven organizations. Unless of course, their is a problem, and then you get a bunch of disgruntled members showing up. The smart money is not in how we can increase membership turn-out but rather, how can we involve members given the nature of society today. To be frank, membership turn-out in years gone by had to do with informing members and the only method was at a meeting. Today, communication is done very differently but unions do not seem to have kept up with modern communication techniques. Further, most unions are saddled with antiquated constitutions which were formed and written many many years ago which compels them to follow the rules explicitly disregarding changes in society.


    Seniority was founded under the guild philosophy of years ago. It made sense that a senior member would have more skills having spent more years doing the trade. In return, the employer could understand this and was, if not willing, at least understood it was to his/her advantage. Further, this seniority promoted allegiance to the company since moving to another job meant losing seniority. Today, most companies see it as a disadvantage since job requirements and skills change almost yearly and they feel senior employees are more expensive. Nevertheless, seniority is an integral part of union membership and an advantage to members since the original ideas have not changed. A more senior member is likely better able at the job than a less senior member.

    On the other hand, union members need to be cognizant that change is taking place faster so continual education is really a modern day requirement. And I would agree that moving up to ladder as a union member should be looked at from both seniority and ability and not just seniority alone. There is no doubt seniority removed the favouritism issue but it has also added the problem of who is more skilled. Such issues can be solved with a little thinking.

    Keeping Young Workers Interested

    Like all organizations, this issue is one of modernization through innovative thinking, PR campaigns, collection of data dissemination of information and good research. Unions should not be just about getting better incomes. One of the obvious negatives often heard in the public is that unions are only in it for themselves and don't care what happens to the company or anything else going on in the community. To have a sea change in how unions are seen unions must focus on the external pressures that affect the perception of unions. As it is, unions are seen as encumbrances to progress and innovation.

    Perhaps unions have to look at other countries and what they are up to. Or begin a dialogue with unions from other countries and strike international agreements. As it is, corporate ideology is to move investments to other, cheaper and less regulated countries which places them in a much better position while unions are "land locked". A change does need to take place and sooner rather than later.

  9. It's time to move away from adversarial bargaining and recognize that it's in the interests of members and employers to learn collaborative problem solving processes based on mutual respect. This style of communication also engages people and encourages creativity from all sides. This is necessary when trying to engage young people who are not interested, and are in fact turned off, by the old style way of doing business between members and employers. I also think unions need to do a much better job of connecting with community groups and other organizations on issues, actions, campaigns etc. There are many times where I find out after the fact that a local has rallied or demonstrated somewhere in the community on an issue of great importance to non-union members. If unions were more open and less of a private club, by that I mean more connected to the larger community, it would go a long way toward dispelling the myths being put out by harper and his ilk that union members only care about themselves and aren't acting for the public good. My experience in a union was short lived, and as the victim of workplace bullying, they did nothing to help me at all. I have always supported unions on principle, but it's getting harder to do given that they seem stuck in the good old days.

  10. This is an another important perspective on the discussion of the role of labour unions in our society. In part: "Ironically, many of the laws the Organized Right seeks to undo, which set out a framework for the peaceful and productive labour relations that contributed to the creation of the North American middle class, also may have over time weakened the commitment of labour unions to social change beyond their own membership.

    The legally entrenched adversarial system of labour relations that prevails in all jurisdictions in North America, regardless of how steeply the playing field is tilted in favour of employers in various places, has inevitably inclined unions to focus on the “business” of labour relations, and the rights and welfare of their own members to the exclusion of those they do not represent.

    This has made unions less effective agents of social change, and it has wedged open a gap between union members and non-union workers that the Organized Right has successfully and effectively exploited."


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  13. One thing that unions must do is to counter the very effective right propaganda that unions are an economic drag on society and that they are unaccountable anachronisms that benefit only union management. There must be an across the board communication strategy that illustrate how unions were the force that enabled the creation of the middle classes and how unions are the only thing that stands in the way of the current oeverarching inequality engendered by neo-liberalism and the cult of the individual. Unions need to spend money on massive publicity campaigns to counter the kinds of "meditations" that Wheeler engages in and the massive anti-union rhetoric so prevalent in the corporate press. I know that this will be difficult as the corporate press will not publish most of it and will counter with its own campaign so I suggest direct mail-outs and internet campaigns not just to established members but to all Cdns. Cdns must be shown the real history of trade unionism and what it does today to counter the exploitation of human beings by capital. Craig Proulx Union member

  14. One of the first things one should do in looking at an article like this is do some research on the author. In this case a Liberal Party activist. 'Nuff said?

  15. Posted on behalf of Pam Birdsall,

    Hi Nick,

    Thank you for sending this article to me. I read it and all the comments that were posted. One person spoke of the rise of unions and the creation of the middle class in North America. It's too easy to forget how and why unions were hard won, just as people tend to forget how and why Employment Insurance was established.

    I had a friend who would laugh and say that the general population drank too much Milk of Amnesia! With new forms of social media available, the union story can be told more broadly promoting more thoughtful conversations.

    Unions need to remain relevant, and continue to engage members.

    Pam Birdsall
    MLA for Lunenburg
    Province of Nova Scotia

  16. This article is is sadly a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. This is damaging opinion being floated by someone who purports to be a labour activist. Yet when you examine the issues raised he is carelessly spreading the misinformed rhetoric of labour union detractors and the right wing, big business agenda.

    His take on seniority is unfounded and in most union environments when promotion is involved, seniority usually is considered when there is relative equality among candidates.

    The comments about making a committment to professional excellence and coasting until they get a pre-ordained reward are simply offensive and very disappointing to see from the pen of someone in relatively high standing in the labour community. Is he suggesting that union employees are not committed to professional excellence?? The vast majority of unionized staff are hardworking, dedicated and proficient employees. This opinion piece puts forward that there is some legitimacy to the worn out and unfounded stereotypes that union haters continually hurl at organized labour.

    The example of grievances is again off base and dredges up the often cited stereotype of the union only protecting bad employees. It is agreed that grievances are costly expenses. However I have spoken with many activists in different unions across Ontario and Canada, and the fact is that most unions have tried to engage the employer on interest based methods of problem solving in the area of grievances. Over and over again I hear that the employer has been the larger obstacle in reaching a resolution.

    It is clear that employers hold the greater balance of power in resolving these matters and I have seen time and time again, the employer force a case to arbitration and then present a viable offer at the eleventh hour. Had they been reasonable at earlier stages the cost of resolution would be far less for all parties.

    Many union activists who have attended significant numbers of grievances (that have reached arbitration) would in my opinion share the perspective that most cases that get to the arbitration stage are legitimate complaints and not simply bad employees taking advantage of the unionized environment.

    I have to share my opinion that I dont believe this was a sincere attempt to raise genuine concerns about the “state of the union” so to speak. I find it very odd that someone with this author’s bio and credentials within the labour movement would not see the damage in re-inforcing these stereotypes to such a wide audience. Perhaps his attachment to the political party that brought us Bill 115 explains some of the mystery.

  17. Remarkable how much union bashing there was in the lead up to Labour Day this year, including this awful and poorly researched op/ed. If I were the COPE leadership I wouldn't be happy about having my legal counsel publicly stating opinions that could very well be submitted by the employer in upcoming arbitrations. Dwindling participation? Labour density has remained remarkably steady in Canada for the past decade, and recently has experienced a slight uptick. Sitting on the Vector Polling Coalition, the big surprise is that young people are far more enthusiastic about participation in labour and supportive of our core values. Getting shafted by Neo-Liberal policies, they are waking up to the fact that unions are necessary, or as the Star editorial stated on Monday, are a well-established force for social good. Does Wheeler really believe the strategy for growth lies in moaning about shortcomings framed by the right or by celebrating our many successes? People want to join winners, not losers. Any objective analysis shows that unions in Canada are a success -- workers earn more, we have slowed the rate of inequality, and we have contributed to Canada's economic well-being. Best of all, its clear from the polling that we have an even stronger future.

  18. SORRY - I can only comment by observation as an `oldster`- you can not get seniority by playing on the slopes AND not being on the job. I have seem toooo many`youngsters` not working on the weekends as well as the long weekends as this pushes into their social time. Get a grip kids - if you want to be an adult - you must act like one. Walk the talk.

  19. I have held a variety of positions in my union for the past 25 years and my comments are based on my experiences. There are some excellent comments above which I will try not to repeat. Particularly, the defense of seniority and arbitration are solid. Seniority is not an automatic ticket - it kicks in usually where all other things are roughly equal in job competitions.

    Presuming Mr. Wheeler was referring to Toronto's Labour Day Parade, I was there and there were thousands of "ordinary workers" among the many different contingents including my own - OPSEU. While it is the case that it's always been a challenge to get members out to events, Labour Day is one time that many do show up. Can we do better? Sure but yesterday's "show" was pretty impressive in my opinion.

    2) Mr. Wheeler's critical comments about lunchtime meetings says to me that he may not have a lot of organizing experience. It all really depends on the local and workplace. In my local (office workers), lunch time meetings has proven to be an effective organizing tool. What does it matter when the meeting happens as long as it is well attended? That was a cheap shot that took away from Mr. Wheeler's credibility.

    3) It's up to management, not the union, to manage. If members "get off the hook" with a grievance, it's often because managers have not properly put a case together. Due process. As well, unions have carriage over grievances - i.e. they decide what goes forward and what doesn't.

    The elephants in the room that Mr. Wheeler doesn't even acknowledge as issues:
    1) Two-tiered contracts that provide less to new hires (often younger members). As long as unions "promote" two-tiered contracts by not fighting against it, there will be inter-bargaining unit conflicts with possibly disastrous results in the long run. Taking on contracting out and privatization of the public sector is another big challenge that can serve as a catalyst to unite everyone in the workplace. Expanding organizing into new sectors like high tech is yet another way to breathe new life into unions.

    2) As professional union staff play more and more of a central role in running the affairs of the union, local leaders are often edged out. By ceding local organizing to "head office", the members are further dis-empowered and dependent on "head office". The unionization of union staff is a contradiction but we're not allowed to talk about it. Is there a better balance? Should we look at electing members to do work that staff currently do?

    3) While difficult to generalize, the more democratic that unions are, the better off the members will be. Every union has it's own culture, rules, practices etc. It's up to the members of each union to wage internal struggles to ensure the organization acts fairly and democratically and on behalf of the members as a whole.

    Are there huge challenges facing labour? You bet. But making concessions on seniority and arbitration will only beget further concessions. It is not a solution. It is part of our problem as we struggle to maintain those things that we used to criticize as not going far enough - whether in the workplace or in defending our social safety net in society.

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