A lot of people don’t realize that unions that represent workers in interactions with employers are also employers themselves. The union’s leaders are members of the union and are elected by the other members – but most unions, especially larger national or international unions and labour federations, also have administrative, executive, and staff employees. These employees keep the union running day to day, and might have special expertise, like researching or negotiating, that the union can use during its organizing campaigns or collective bargaining.
What a lot of people also don’t realize is that employees of unions are often unionized themselves. The employees don’t belong to the same union that they work for – that would be a conflict of interest. So they are members of a different union, usually one that includes workers in similar occupations. As an example, the employees of the union I belong to, at a provincially-funded university, are members of a local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, a national union that represents many public sector workers.
A union’s employees being unionized also means that, like any other group of unionized workers, they negotiate with their employer for a collective agreement. And that is where things can get kind of tricky. A union is accountable to its members, whose union dues are the union’s main source of revenue, and members expect their union to be financially responsible and to operate efficiently and effectively. But unions are also supposed to be progressive organizations that support better workplace conditions and fair treatment for all workers.
So it looks embarrassing for a union if contract negotiations with its own workers break down, and those workers decide to go on strike. And right now, 46 of the unionized workers at the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), Canada’s largest national federation of unions, are on strike. These workers are members of the Canadian Union of Labour Representatives, which is affiliated with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW).
I don’t have any special insight on the dynamics of this bargaining dispute, or on what internal conflicts might be influencing it. CLC president Hassan Yusseff claims that after mediation, the union walked away from a “fair and decent offer” that members of the other union representing CLC workers had already agreed to. Apparently the disputed issues between this union and the CLC include the amount of pension contributions and the structure of an anti-harassment workplace policy.
The CLC has a special status as “the national voice of Canada’s labour movement”. Therefore, its operations should set an example for the thousands of unions and labour councils under its umbrella. It’s unfortunate that negotiations broke down between the CLC and this group employees, and it’s unfortunate that those employees felt that going on strike was their best option. Trust me, going on strike is not fun, and union members usually think very seriously before agreeing to a strike. There’s no way of knowing how long a strike could last, or how much the strike might hurt the workers financially in lost wages.
The CLC has a responsibility to treat its employees fairly, as does any employer, and its operations need to be financially sustainable. But as the organization that represents Canada’s labour movement nationally and internationally, the CLC also has a moral and ethical responsibility to demonstrate progressive and collaborative labour relations – to use an old cliché, to talk the talk and walk the walk. I sincerely hope that this dispute will be resolved quickly and amicably.