Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Note on Wisconsin's Labour Chill Moving North by Larry Katz

Larry is a retired CUPE Research Director. He circulated this recently. Well worth a read.

I just finished reading ‘Will Wisconsin's Chill on Labour Move North?’ by Konrad Yakabuski in the Globe and Mail (click HERE to see the article)

It’s a fairly good article for someone I expect is not a big fan of unions and has little direct experience with industrial relations and union culture. Yakabuski suggests that despite the comparative strength of unions here, this is likely to happen. Economic changes and prevailing fiscal constraints in the two countries are not fundamentally different. Governments and other public institutions here, as in the U.S., simply don’t have the revenue needed to maintain existing union rights, benefits and wage expectations, he suggests.

Increasing taxes on already over-burdened taxpayers is not a realistic option. Something has to give.

It is possible, of course, to argue that public employees did not cause today’s economic problems. It is possible to put forward more equitable alternative economic models of development. It is possible to show that the wages and benefits won by unions in the past have helped raise the standard of living for others. I expect unions will do this. But it won’t be enough, I don’t think, to stop the “chill” moving north.

We have two basic problems that have to be addressed if we are going to avoid Yakubuski’s prediction. I’ve said this before on many occasions, but I feel it is worth repeating.

First, unions in Canada have to acknowledge their own vulnerability, stop pretending they have the answers, start new conversations, and establish real democratic connections with their own members. Union members pay their dues, but most do not feel part of the union. A return to the ABC’s of union education and organizing is required. Respectful, open, probing conversations and the deployment of resources in new ways are needed if this is going to happen. Unions need to consider new ways of operating and organizing, and they need to do this with their members.

And secondly, union members in Canada have to reach out to taxpayer-citizen users of public services and programs and build a community of understanding and common interest with them, not merely when in reactive mode to defend a particular service being threatened, but as an ongoing strategic, democratic, political objective. Both go to the heart of what democracy under today’s conditions is in part really all about.

Both need focused, ongoing attention. The insufficient development of both has a lot to do with why unions have been (and remain) on the defensive. It also has a lot to do with many other problems we face as a country.

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