The ups & downs of staff unionization

The Queen’s administrative staff recently decided to unionize with the United Steel Workers (USW). In this week’s web feature, our panellists discuss the impact this decision will have and the ethics of labour relations.

James Simpson, ArtSci ‘11
James Simpson, ArtSci ‘11
Devin McDonald, ArtSci ‘13
Devin McDonald, ArtSci ‘13
Dan Osborne, ArtSci ‘12
Dan Osborne, ArtSci ‘12
Lindsay Kline, ArtSci ’11
Lindsay Kline, ArtSci ’11
Elamin Abdelmahmoud, ArtSci ’11
Elamin Abdelmahmoud, ArtSci ’11

The first step is to change our choice of language

I won't address the nuances of the staff decision to join the United Steel Workers union or, for that matter, the pros and cons of any union.

Though I’m decidedly in favour of unionization, I recognize there are reasonable objections to some union structures, and that’s a conversation any organization ought to have. What I'm more concerned about is the language we use to speak about unions because it greatly shapes the conclusions we seem to arrive at.

When discussing unions, there's a tendency to discuss the impact of unionization on the employer. Questions about the corporation are always the first to arise—what changes will the employer have to make to accommodate the new union? How reasonable is it for the company to increase salaries in the face of collective bargaining? How will the company be affected if the employees strike?

I don’t want to take away from the legitimacy of the questions being asked, but we must examine why they revolve around the employer. Additionally, we need to shift the conversation to also include the impact on employees—what benefits to employees does unionization offer? Can we assume that employees will reasonably work with the employer to arrive at solutions? How will the collective position of employees improve through unions?

Once we include this new set of questions into our analysis of unions, we might begin to change the nature of our conversation about them. Only then do we see that an individual facing an overwhelming institution will likely be silenced, but a union cannot.

By shifting the conversation away from an examination of the impact on the employer solely, we’re able to see the reason unions were needed in the first place. The way we currently frame unions is bound to produce an anti-union stance—after all, we’re always asking how they might inconvenience the employer.

We need to trace the linguistic genealogy of the terms we use to talk about unions. Only then can we gain a more holistic view.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud, ArtSci '11

Unions are still relevant, but ought to be strengthened through government action

Every time a union strikes (or even threatens to strike), the whole institution of union labour comes into question. It seems that we're perfectly happy with receiving many of the benefits unions have brought us, yet we're unwilling to accept the risks that accompany the rewards.

Some of my colleagues might argue that the union is an institution that was once instrumental in raising working conditions to hospitable levels but no longer serves a purpose. They'll say that the protection necessary to sustain working conditions has been codified into law and unions now only serve to agitate employer-employee relation via antagonistic negotiation practices.

In response, I'd contend that unions still play a vital role in representing the voice of the worker. A significant percentage of unionized workers lack the various basic skills to adequately represent themselves during a dispute with their employer. They don't have the education necessary to bring forward serious grievances nor do they possess the financial means to file a civil suit.

Thus, unions do fulfill a vital role in modern society that hasn't been replaced by the protection of the law. The majority of criticisms raised about unions seem to focus on their antagonistic relations with employers from whom they seek concessions which are unrealistic in this economic climate.

The question which comes to bear is whether unions can be sufficiently restructured to retain the qualities I find instrumental to peaceable labour relations whilst diminishing their negative aspects?

The government holds the capacity to play a more significant role in the negotiation of labour disputes. A government entity could act as a collective voice for workers. By holding the interests of workers at heart, it could remain a sober body of thought when pursuing concessions in bleak economic climates.

Provided it would be established with structures that gave it independence from fair-weather political associations and lobby pressures, a government body holds the unique capacity to rehearse disputes in a neutral theatre.

Devin McDonald, ArtSci '13

Keep an open mind toward unionization

Put simply, unions aid in the safeguarding of jobs, the improvement of working conditions and the enforcement of rights in the workplace. Be it a construction yard, newsroom or classroom, staff unionization provides a continuum of equality, standardization and a meeting of expectations on behalf of the employed.

The staff union that has recently emerged at Queen’s comes at a crucial point for the University because budget cuts are threatening job security.

The poor economic environment at Queen’s has necessitated unionization because of a desire to have a more predictable workplace. A union for Queen’s staff members will provide the exact protection needed to avoid pay cuts and maintain their jobs. The choice to unionize is reflective of the staff’s unhappiness with administrative decisions .

Unionization seems to come with a variety of other benefits that make the job that much easier. For example, unionization provides opportunities for wage negotiation, the ability to report discrimination without worry of being ignored and a pension to look forward to at the end of your career.

For some, the stability provided by unions is nothing more than a reflection of the workers inability to confront issues. However, discrimination and inequality seem to me best confronted as a collective body so that concerns can be heard. For example, a woman or minority citizen benefits from unionization because opportunities are provided to have a work environment that is more equal than those that rely on the free-market.

Despite the “fight for your rights” mentality that’s associated with unions, unions should be looked at more positively regarding their purpose and importance. Unionization at Queen’s is a well thought out solution to threats in the workplace that Queen’s administration and so many others have been facing.

Lindsay Kline, ArtSci '11

We should look to governments, not unions, to provide higher standards

The recent unionization of administrative staff at Queen’s was a no-brainer for them, but they should stop to consider the consequences on the University. Last year, the staff association that preceded this union agreed to take smaller pay increases, expecting that other staff groups would follow suit. When other groups refused to take smaller pay increases, it left the administrative staff out in the cold.

This process highlights one of the major flaws of a unionized environment. In the midst of one of the worst economic crises Canadian universities have ever faced (a situation that continues to deteriorate), staff unions refuse to consider pay cuts. Yet, to what extent is this position realistic or sustainable?

Proponents of unions often argue that they protect the rights of (and provide a voice for) the worker. I agree that these are both important and necessary goals. But at what point does a union’s function become less about these factors and more about greed?

At York University, a school with a strong faculty union (and a school at which one of its unions went on strike and was forced back to work by the government), the average associate professor makes $112,926. To put this into perspective, the average associate professor at Yale makes $98,379. How can York, a publicly funded institution, pay nearly 20 per cent more than Yale, a private Ivy League school?

Historically, unions have served an important function in society, but they’re now little more than a liability. Instead of relying on unions, government should legislate more effective employment standards.

Many of the benefits available to unions—a labour relations board, arbitration and additional benefits for employees—could be made available to employees on a broader level through legislation.

This action could finally make the last useful vestiges of unions obsolete.

James Simpson, ArtSci ’11

Unions distort the playing field

Growing up, I was told that it's important to judge people based on their character, their actions and their work ethic. Unfortunately, the existence of unions precludes society's ability to value individuals for their actions and encourages us to ignore, if not praise, inefficiency and incompetence.

Quite simply, union members play on a different playing field than non-union members. The legislation protecting a union member, primarily the Ontario Labour Relations Act, makes it nearly impossible to outright fire an employee who doesn't work.

When workers of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC)—a government entity with a very strong union—were filmed sleeping at work and sending text messages at the wheel of a bus, both the TTC and the union representing its workers refused to talk to the media about any possible punishments for the workers violating provincial law (while ensuring wages stayed well above the provincial average).

If a non-union member—the vast majority of workers—chose to behave in a manner similar to the TTC employees, he would simply be fired. If a small business owner was so irresponsible, he'd starve.

Supporters of unions suggest that they're needed to improve the working conditions of the working man. There are some critical flaws in this argument. In protesting for higher wages, unions are protesting for wages above their equilibrium level. On a small scale, this just means that resources are diverted away from more productive means, like employing more people or raising the wages of the truly destitute members of society.

On a larger scale, it means double-digit inflation and lowering real wages. If the union supporters had their way, we would become a society like 1970's Britain, where even the grave-diggers went on strike to offset the rising costs of living brought on by the inflation of wages from other unions.

Today, Canadians—and almost everyone else around the world—are working under better conditions and for higher real wages than they ever have in history. Queen's University administrative staff are certainly not working in the "dark satanic mills" that William Blake wrote about back in 1804.

Unions make all of us worse off economically, especially those who the most unskilled and impoverished. And all of that is ignoring unions' frequent violations of the basic human right to freedom of association.

Unions are truly destructive and ought not to exist, if for no other reason that we could be unfortunate enough to emulate York University and lose an entire year of school.

Dan Osborne, ArtSci '12

Every week, Journal Dialogue brings together members of the Queen's community to discuss events of the day and try to find solutions to some pressing issues. The result is displayed above. See next week's issue for the panel's take on the CRTC and usage-based billing.

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