Rank and file power and union reforms

294241_10151620945485660_605085145_n

by David Bush

Since the economic crisis the union movement in Canada has faced a number of defeats at the bargaining table and on the picket line. On top of that the union movement has had to do battle with a slew of regressive legislative attacks on collective bargaining at the provincial and federal level, of which Bill 115 in Ontario and federal Bill C-377 are but the most egregious examples.

The economic and political conditions that the labour movement faces go a long way in explaining organized labour’s weakened position. However, this does not fully explain the scope of why trade unions and the working class have encountered such difficulties in mounting a fight back against employers. At least part the explanation for the weak response to the recent wave of anti-union attacks should be rooted in an analysis of the internal structures of unions.

Unifor’s recently released working constitution reveals what is, on paper at least, a potentially new union structure. Thus, the CEP-CAW merger into Unifor, which will be official at the end of August, should be a time for critical self-reflection for the whole union movement in regards to its own structures and practices.

Before jumping into what reforms we should be discussing, it is worth looking at what some of the major internal problems the union movement faces. The first and most obvious is that unions have developed a culture of servicing that is little different than the logic of insurance companies. Members pay dues and expect grievance services, legal representation and gains at the bargaining table. This type of culture is the product of years of inertia and sectoralism that predominates most of the union movement.

The top down culture that exists in the union movement has entrenched and empowered a bureaucracy that is either incapable or unmotivated to meet the current challenges faced by unions and the broader working class. The first step for rank and file activists is to think of ways to challenge this entrenched bureaucracy so that members are both empowered and mobilized as a process of reform. This is not something that can happen overnight, nor is it something that can occur in isolation from a broader fight back strategy across the working class.

That being said I offer up a couple of key reforms (though I am sure there are many other good ideas that I didn’t list) as a way to open up a discussion about the type of labour movement we both want and need. The reforms I outline are not inherently progressive nor do they necessarily lead to rank and file power. Any structural reform in a union can be manipulated to further the aims of those already in power. Thus, reforms of union structures can never be a substitute for an engaged, organized and politicized rank and file. If these reforms are part of a broader rank and file movement, they can help create favourable conditions for mobilizing members and making unions a more effective fighting force for the working class.

Salary Caps

Unions should have clearly defined salary caps for their representatives, elected officials, and organizers that reflect the range of pay of their members. It is no secret that many in the union bureaucracy making six figures do quite well compared to their members. It could be argued that these salaries are a pittance compared to those in private sector management. This comparison is flawed. Unions are not equivalent to capitalist organizations. It is true union officials are responsible for thousands of members, large staffs, and overseeing programs such as pension plans, but unions are in essence rooted in principles of solidarity, not profits.

When the leadership and staff are making significantly more money than the average member it can be problematic for several reasons. It plays right into the right wing attacks that describe unions as vehicles to enrich labour leaders and staff. High union salaries serve to entrench the current bureaucracy. Those at the top have little motivation to change the top down structure because they are the major beneficiaries of such a structure. High salaries also creates a culture of careerism, people who seek office or representative jobs can often be motivated by money rather than a political commitment to trade unionism.

By calling for explicit salary caps rank and filers can start to separate the wheat from the chaff in the union bureaucracy. This can also be framed as trying to free up more staff resources for organizing new members and doing outreach to current ones. Most unions spend approximately five percent or less of their yearly budget on organizing new members. Unifor has pledged to allot ten percent of its budget for new organizing. This is far below the roughly forty percent that UNITE-HERE and the SEIU in Canada, two of the most active unions in terms of growth, spend on organizing.

The point is to make jobs in the bureaucracy less attractive for those who aren’t politically motivated, while at the same time freeing up much needed resources. This isn’t to say we should cut down staff salaries (especially support and administrative staff who make considerably less than other union staff) to next to nothing, rather we should make them tied to a bundle of average wages of the members. We should aim to have people who occupy staff positions to be there for political or ideological rather than material reasons.

Term Limits

There is absolutely nothing inherently progressive about term limits. However, in the current context it looks like term limits would help to shake-up the inertia of the current elected officials. Having term limits on positions will ensure that elected officials will have to engage in some sort of membership development and leadership recruitment. It will also give the rank and file more opportunity to run candidates in contested elections and hold elected officials accountable.

Teachers unions, such as the OSSTF, have seen provincial leaders elected throughout the McGuinty years in Ontario. As a result, there is an unhealthy degree of collusion between union executives and the Liberal Party that undermined the union’s ability to confront Bill 115. OSSTF president Ken Coran has used his years of experience in the union to be selected as a Liberal MPP candidate in London-West, only a few months after OSSTF was planning a walkout against Bill 115. A number of OSSTF leaders of the District 12 (Toronto) Teachers Bargaining Unit have been in power for at least a decade. In December 2012, these local union leaders approved the donation of tens of thousands of dollars to Liberal leadership candidates who had voted in favour of Bill 115. The decision was broken to the membership via the mainstream media, not their own elected leaders. Having term limits means helping undermine the union leaders who have been in power too long and now place their own careers or political goals ahead of the interests of the membership and keeping alive a democratic culture within the union.

One Member One Vote

Having one member one vote for elected positions can help (though is no guarantee) break the grip of the bureaucracy within the union by making it harder for backroom politics to decide crucial issues and elected positions.

Internal Organizers

Unions need to hire more internal organizers. Yes, unions also need to hire many more external organizers to organize the unorganized, though without membership development there will be no change in the culture of servicing. Internal organizers are necessary to help educate and empower members. These organizers need to constantly engage with members, draw them out to political events and rallies that can connect their sectorial interests with a larger class perspective.

These organizers should also be building and supporting a large shop steward network. On top of that they should aim at creating a culture of solidarity within the union and between the union and the broader community by hosting social and cultural events. If unions are to transform themselves into a more effective fighting force, than they must constantly engage with members on more than just economic terms. To do this requires more than good intentions and grand pronouncements, it requires actual resources for membership development.

Elected positions

Unions should gradually move towards having more elected staff positions. This cannot happen overnight but it should be the end result of internal organizing. This is a model that is already employed by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Elected positions can help limit careerism and keep the bureaucracy accountable to the membership.

I would like to just reiterate that none of the reforms listed above will ensure that unions will be more effective for or accountable to their membership. Reforms that aim to curb the power of the existing union bureaucracy and empower rank and file activists are only possible if activists are able to build organized and effective rank and file groups within their unions.

Print Friendly

5 thoughts on “Rank and file power and union reforms

  1. Pingback: Rank and file power and union reforms | Hammerhearts

  2. David’s analysis fails to take into account that most union staff are unionized. Populist anti-staff proposals like David’s end up in union bashing of employee’s unions. I was locked out by SGEU for over 4 months over a long Saskatchewan winter. I tire if these anti-staff diatribes from the “left”.

  3. I know full well about union staff positions being unionized. I am currently working for a union. I think there is a real difference between staff who are admin and staff who are well-paid business agents. I disagree that my piece is populist, rather I try to present a nuanced argument about real problems within union culture – while trying to root that understanding in a broader class based analysis. Simply pretending these problems don’t exist is not helping anyone.

  4. Pingback: The missing piece: The far-left in the workplace | Hammerhearts

  5. The issue of how to deal with staff issues is indeed complicated. Careerism is endemic whether they are paid staff or elected. But David does not address the issue of collective agreements covering staff, whether admin. or “business representatives”. I worked for SGEU for 20 years with a cba that covered all. We didn’t earn 6 figure wages but we were well paid. Progressive staff played a fundamental role in assisting SGEU in becoming a activist union, as they have in many other unions. SGEU has become a regressive union, partly due to a populist “anti-staff” culture. I don’t think this is unique to Saskatchewan.

    Maybe the issues David is addressing come from a more central union perspective, in which case his observations may be accurate. I can only address this issue as a retired prairie marxist who faced a union employer attacking union cba benefits and closed down our defined benefit pension plan costing union retirees (most of them women) considerably.

    I think the issue of turning unions back to the rank and file has less to do with union staff and more to do with the internal organizing that David suggests.

Add Comment