Monday, April 27, 2009

Those ever fascinating unions

I see that Chrysler workers in Canada ratified the collective agreement negotiated by its union leaders by 87%.

I negotiated collective agreements on behalf of my employer during my most active years in the work force and I have always been fascinated by the relationship between the rank and file workers and those who supposedly speak on their behalf at the bargaining table. There is an assumption most workers make that their locally elected leadership (the people who actually work in the establishment governed by the agreement) is in charge of the process.

In big unions, like CUPE or the CAW, not so. The regional or national boys always take over, and the local president and his or her two or three minions become seat-fillers at the bargaining table. The problem with this is that the union politics spearheaded by the national headquarters takes precedence over local issues.

I recall a circumstance when I caved into a union demand that I did not like regarding job security because the national office was demanding it in all their agreements (pattern bargaining). But, I also managed to soften the blow by offering much less money for wage increases than I had been prepared to offer. After all, I had to justify the agreement to my board of directors.

When the members voted to ratify the deal, only 65% approved. It was enough of course, but in the previous half century of the union’s life it was common to obtain 98% ratification. My sources told me the big disappointment was the wages and that the security issue was of no concern to the local.

I wasn’t completely surprised when I saw the CAW seemingly going down the road to collective suicide with its intransigence at the bargaining table, just before it did the abrupt about-face. The vote of the workers clearly indicates they would prefer a job to a long time in the unemployment lines, and I guess at some point the union leaders woke up to what the workers really valued.

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