Labour Views column for September 28, 2016: Some Myths About Unions

By September 28, 2016Labour Views

Written by Alexander Lambrecht,

President of the Northern Territories Federation of Labour


Some Myths About Unions

In a little over 200 years (I know, what took so long… Oh Opposition!), workers’ of the labour movement have gained legal recognition of many of the workers’ rights that weren’t always there:  the right to form unions for the promotion and defense of their interests without interference by employer or government; the freedom of association and freedom of expression; the right to a legal framework that recognizes collective bargaining as the means of determining their wages, working conditions and terms of employment.

Why people join unions and pay dues?

A union is created in a workplace when a majority of its workers sign membership cards, and then take a vote to determine if the majority want the union to represent them or not.  They believe that the union will help to better their lives by negotiating a safer workplace, better working conditions, and improved wages and benefits.  Since all workers in the workplace benefit from these improvements, all workers must pay dues, whether or not they voted in favour of the union.  It’s just like having to pay taxes to governments, whether you voted for them or not.

Unions are always making unreasonable demands

When unions make up their wage demands, they usually try and catch up to the cost of living to ensure their members have a fair standard of living.  Unions are interested in negotiating the best contract they can get for their members.  Employers, by and large are interested in doing their business or delivering a service at the lowest possible cost and with the most profit.  The end result is usually a compromise between the two different interests and positions.

Unions are only interested in money

Wages are important, but they are not the only issue for unions.  Some of the first goals of organized labour were better working conditions, eliminating child sweatshops, expanding public education and reducing the number of working hours.  Over the years, unions have led the fight for medicare, workers’ compensation, occupational health and safety laws, stronger human rights legislation, and pay equity.  Today’s focus is primarily on job security, retraining and pensions.  As times change, unions adapt to meet the needs of their members.

Unions are strike happy

Unions negotiate for agreements – not strikes.  Ninety-seven percent (97%) of contract negotiations are settled without a strike.  Strikes are controversial and controversy makes news.  This is no doubt why many people think strikes are the rule rather than the exception.  Unions only go on strike as a last resort; after all other methods of settling a contract have failed.  The right to strike is a matter of freedom, and a democratic society cannot function without freedom.

Aren’t unions too big and powerful?

“Big” and “powerful” are relative terms.  In actual fact, most Canadian unions are quite small, and combined represent just over than 30% of the country’s workforce.  Even the largest unions, in terms of size and resources, pale by comparison with most multinational corporations.  Unions are made up of all kinds of people.  They’re human – workers’ rights are human rights.  They are governed by a democratic decision making process where the members of the union elect their leaders and make decisions on what directions the union should take.  Corporations and some governments do not have this level of democracy or accountability for their shareholders or electors.   If unions were even one-tenth as powerful as they are thought to be, they would have no problem organizing the millions of Canadians still outside unions.