Do unions matter anymore?

The New Brunswick Federation of Labour is meeting in Moncton to plan its strategies for the next year. On Friday, new figures published show that union membership in New Brunswick is way down. I am not sure that beyond negotiating lucrative agreements for public servants, the union movement is doing anything to help New Brunswick’s economy (some would argue that massive wage increases for health care and education workers has a net negative effect on the economy but that’s a debate for another day).

I wrote a thesis on the union movement over 15 years ago in university that examined why the union movement had still not evolved from an adversarial model to a partnership model where the workers are part and parcel of strategy and unions adjust their expectations up and down based on market conditions. A flexible union model could continue to provide benefits to its members but also the employers and the community at large.

However, here we are in the 21st Century and unions continue to be only about wages. Beat the employer into submission. Never mind the serious economic challenges facing New Brunswick, our role (the union) is to squeeze out as much as we can from the government while the light’s still shining.

This is sad, in my opinion. It’s not that public servants don’t deserve more money. It’s that the posture of the union movement as a whole doesn’t seem to care about the bigger picture. Instead of being a powerful force to support growth, it continues to be adversarial and hostile.

Here’s an idea. Why doesn’t Buzz Hargrove negotiate a new automobile plant for New Brunswick (considering he is from here after all) when he is negotiating with one of the big auto makers? In the 1990s, virtually all of the new auto plants were put in the “New Brunswicks” of the United States – Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, etc. but not in Canada. All the new plants were put in good old southern Ontario. If Buzz negotiated 20% lower salaries in New Brunswick and the government kicked in a few bucks, I guarantee they would come. That would be an example of a positive role that a union could play.

But that will never happen. The unions will continue to push for more Employment Insurance in New Brunswick and more auto manufacturing jobs in Ontario. They will continue to negotiate lucrative public service wage increases without ever admitting that the outlook for the public service in New Brunswick is bleak – 15-20 years out – how many public servants will we need to support a senior citizen-heavy population of 500,000?