Unions face many negative perceptions, such as the notion that union workers are lazy, under worked, have job security for life, and enjoy gold-plated benefits and pension packages that others can only dream about. In light of this, how can unions overcome their PR problem?
This question was one of many that was put to a panel of labour relations practitioners and experts recently, at a roundtable discussion sponsored by Queen’s IRC, and hosted by the Canadian HR Reporter. Todd Humber, the Canadian HR Reporter’s managing editor, moderated the roundtable discussion.
In the first of three videos to be released by the Canadian HR Reporter, panelists weighed in on the future of unions in the private sector, discussed the PR problem unions may or may not have, made suggestions about what can be done to overcome it, and looked to the future for Canadian unions.
In this article, I have summarized some of the main thoughts and quotes from the panelists. You can view the full 12-minute video here:
Peter Edwards, Vice-President, Human Resources and Labour Relations, Canadian Pacific, and guest speaker with Queen’s IRC
Peter Edwards identified the stereotype of who is a union member, and offered some advice for union leadership for the future.
“When you ask young people, when you ask anybody that is even remotely connected to the world, they understand the role of unions in providing what we have today. They are a key driver for the creation of the middle class, for the reduction of work hours, the paid vacation, all sorts of benefits that we all enjoy. I think we can all agree on that.
“People say, ‘that was great, but what does the future hold for me?'”
Peter said that regardless of whether you call it a PR war or an advertising campaign, unions need to look to the future. “How do you create a vision for people? How do you put the leadership behind it? And how do you execute against that offering and attract people to what you do?
“There is a certain image that [union members] are predominantly blue collar or they’re government workers. And gee, I’m neither of those, so where do I fit in? What’s the message? Where are the people that are like me? And what can you offer me in the future?”
Peter offered an example of one way that union members may not feel like a cohesive group. “We tend to split up our benefits packages so you get exactly this, you get exactly that, and we can tailor it to your individual needs, but we don’t think of the broader need. I think that’s kind of led to the attitude that we are all on our own.”
Peter offered some advice to unions. “If the unions are going to make progress, they’ve got to make it compelling for people to belong to that group that has an affiliation and an image for them, that they can aspire to and be part of.”
Elaine Newman, mediator, arbitrator, and facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Strategic Grievance Handling program
Elaine Newman said that part of the challenge that unions may face is the attitudes about the history of unions, and young people’s attitudes towards unions.
“There are very real demographic shifts, but there’s also, I suggest, a very negative campaign that the union has to address as well.” She said there are negative and inaccurate perceptions about how unions arose, what significance they have, what value they have in maintaining a strong middle class and creating a stable workforce that can withstand economic fluctuation.
“The best possible tool, the best possible weapon that the unions have is education. The process of addressing the PR problem is one of education.” She said that people want to know: “What have the unions done, and more importantly what have they done for me lately?”
Bill Murnighan, Director of the Research Department at UNIFOR
Bill Murnighan began by debunking the stereotype that union workers ‘have it easy’.
“The private sector is going through tremendous job loss, stagnating wages and reductions in their incomes in a variety of ways, so the idea of jobs for life, and gold-plated working conditions is not the reality.”
Bill admitted that there are some highly-paid unionized workers. “But there are all sorts organized workers in hotels, in long-term care facilities, in grocery stores and elsewhere, who are far from having great security or wonderful conditions.
“I think one of the key messages we’ve heard over the last several years, is the changing dynamic that people are not resenting people from working-class—the middle-class Canadians who have good jobs—and rather turning their attention to the idea that ‘I should have those things too. Why can I not achieve a good standard of living or security in the workplace rather than trying to focus on taking away from those who already have it?'”
Bill said it’s important to focus on good PR and maintaining a positive image of the union in the community. “We continue to do our job on the ground with our membership in the communities, but also ensuring that we are seen as a voice for workers who are excluded, who are marginalized, or who are on the outside the labour market.
“I think we have to be very careful and clear that that we’re not resented by whole parts of working Canadians and that’s a fundamental challenge.”
Bill went on to refute the point that today’s workers are ‘content as is’ and don’t want to be part of a union.
“We hear regularly from our members, from people in the community, from youth, that they have significant concerns about what is evolving in the workplace and they’re looking for some way to improve that.
“I think a lot of people are concerned about their security, a lot of people are concerned about the future. They’re concerned also about their kids, and their kids’ future, and about what quality of jobs there are.
“There are different studies out there that say people actually do want to join unions, and that people are pleased to be in union. They support their organizations. The statistics show somewhere around 50,000 people a year join a union for the first time in Canada across the country.”
Bill said he doesn’t see the fundamental issue being unions. “I think the questions are about, what do Canadians want in the workplace and from their jobs? I think it’s a much broader question than about whether unions are there or not.”
Ted Mallett, Vice-President and Chief Economist with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business
Ted Mallett does not agree with Bill Murnighan about Canadians being unhappy with their jobs He said that generally most people are very satisfied with their jobs.
“We’re not talking about a PR problem, we’re talking about the general public having a fundamentally different perspective on the workplace than unions.
“The fact is, job satisfaction is driven by factors around communication, the quality of the decision-making, and your involvement in running the business. The workplace is evolving. We’re seeing higher-educated people, we’re seeing people who are more discerning with information, and they’re choosing—all surveys show—that they’d much rather work in non-unionized workplaces than a unionized ones. There are also a portion of unionized workers who would rather not be unionized.”
Ted said these kinds of shifts are important to note, and to make sure that we have the appropriate public policies to ensure that it is not a union-centered or employer-centered perspective.
Jamie Knight, Partner, Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti
Labour lawyer Jamie Knight predicts a PR problem that unions will be facing in the next few years.
“The elephant in the room is the sweeping change in legislation in the United States where there are more and more right-to-work states.
“There has been significant legislative changes in Saskatchewan. We have a major political party in Ontario, in a minority government situation, that has a white paper that clearly spells out its intention to bring forward legislation to transform Ontario’s Labour Relations Act, and move towards a system whereby there is no dues deduction automatically enforced, when a trade union secures the right to represent workers in workplace.
“That’s the PR campaign that is going to play out, and it’s going to play out in the next Ontario election. There’s a very real possibility that the next government will be formed by a party that proposes to follow the recent example of Michigan, which is a primary competitor for Ontario jobs. That’s the campaign that I think is going to be the interesting one.
“The issue—and it’s not my issue, it’s the political issue on the table—is whether or not the Rand formula is going to be done away with in the province of Ontario. And if the Rand formula, which provides for automatic dues deduction in a unionized environment is done away with, how does the trade union respond to that, in a scenario where dues essentially become voluntary as opposed to imposed.”