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Do unions have a future?

GB Geo-Blog

Do unions have a future?

Earlier this week I participated in a debate with two of my colleagues at York University. One of the questions that arose was: Do unions have a future?

I believe they do, but only if they do one or more of the following, and all will require a fundamental change in their modus operandi.

Unions need to work with employers to find ways to continually improve productivity and quality. This will necessitate that unions move away from an “us versus them” mindset to one where they recognize that the future of their members depends critically on collaboration and the ultimate success of their employers.

Pension funds collectively hold major stakes in all public companies in Canada. The pension funds, by and large, are found in unionized companies. Yet, unions have not used the potential clout of their pension funds to get involved in the governance of public companies. Unions seem to prefer to complain about the inequities in executive compensation. Worse yet, they have chosen to stand on the sidelines as incompetent executives have driven companies into the ground or into the hands of foreign investors.

Unions should get involved in corporate governance. They should insist on board representation, and they should select competent people to represent them on boards. Only in this way will they be able to play a role in the selection and compensation of executives, and in overseeing the strategies of these executives.

Greater union involvement  can only improve current corporate governance practices and outcomes. Perhaps if the steel workers union had become involved in the boards of the major Canadian steel companies, we might still have had one or more independent, Canadian steel companies around today.

Finally, unions should become more politically engaged, and not in the sense of working harder to support the NDP. They should focus light on labour practices in other parts of the world, on environmental practices, and on the ubiquity of corruption.

There is nothing wrong with the federal government negotiating bilateral free trade agreements all over the world as the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations continues to be stalled. But do Canadians want to open access to our market and resources to countries that violate rights and subject workers to horrific working conditions? In many countries, the working environments resemble slavery.

Are Canadians so desperate for lower prices that they are willing to look the other way when it comes to labour market conditions and the environment?

And do we really want Canadian companies to compete in countries where corruption is rampant?

These are important issues  that will define the Canadian character, and hence they must be seriously and openly debated. Unions should play a key role in starting the debate and ensuring that the debate is open and focused.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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