A grave financial crisis should bring the leaders of organized labour, management and government into line. In theory.
Yet the past few weeks have seemed like the dark hours of the Thatcher era, fraught with intimidation and adversarial muscle-flexing from all sides. Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister, threatens to ban the public sector workers from striking. Part-time York University professors are waging a long war of attrition with school management. In both Canada and the United States, autoworkers are routinely blamed for the combustion of the Big Three.
Though they may seem dogmatic and unwavering, unions are not the fist-on-the-table radicals they used to be, note many labour experts from both sides of the spectrum. Aside from the striking part-time York profs, which most observers dismiss as a complicated exception, most unions have actually mellowed with age.
“There’s not that level of in-your-face intransigence,” said Charles Cirtwill, executive vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), an influential, right-leaning think-tank. “[Unions] have come to the point where its membership is most interested in a functional relationship, rather than taking a hammer to things.”
But what has driven this trend? Union veterans believe it has come out of a position of strength. Critics, on the other hand, believe that this lack of shrillness is really the muttering of defeat. “There used to be postal strikes every two years,” said Mr. Cirtwill. “Then came faxes and e-mail, and now those guys have seen the writing on the wall.”
Another telling example of this evolution is the recent exchanges between embattled General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner and United Autoworkers president Ron Gettelfinger — albeit during a hat-in-hand performance in front of the U. S. Senate.
“I do think I need to recognize the fact that Mr. Gettelfinger has done more to address the competitiveness issue in the last three years than I suspect have been done, I don’t know, in the last 30 or 40,” said Mr. Wagoner. (In case anyone missed his point, he added, “And I just want to make sure we fairly recognize [it].” )
Mr. Gettelfinger actually went as far as to defend Mr. Wagoner, saying that firing his erstwhile adversary would not solve GM’s chronic problems.
While union hardliners and GM critics characterized both leaders as sellouts when their last deal was struck last year, former Canadian autoworkers president Buzz Hargrove said that on the whole, union leadership has learned to be less ideological and more confident about conciliation. “The leadership is more willing to stick its neck out, like I did on the Magna thing,” he said, referring to a no-strike deal he engineered with the auto-parts giant last year. “We can still be effective without the threat of striking.”
To some degree, he added, early bargaining has changed the dynamics of the relationship. This means that rather than waiting for the 11th-hour crunch of negotiating a new contract, leaders take a pre-emptive action and deal without a doomsday clock ticking behind them.
The culture of deadlines has also changed, he added. “When I started, you’d never, ever go in without setting a strike deadline. Now we only sometimes work to internal deadlines.”
Then there is the tumultuous, dramatic evolution of Mr. Hargrove himself, famously defecting from the NDP, the workers’ traditional party, to support the Liberals in 2006.
It was a seismic — and controversial — shift in Canadian labour history. At various protests, Hargrove opponents waved placards and handed out buttons with the slogan: “Buzz Off. I’m voting NDP.”
Despite the concessions won by Mr. Hargrove and other leaders, other experts don’t think that labour has come been able to keep up with the times.
Union membership, now at 31% of all working Canadians, has been dropping steadily over the years, a trajectory that can be explained by the slow death of smokestack industries such as car plants, parts manufacturing and aeronautics.
At the same time, Canada has been slowly embracing a service economy, developing sectors such as finance and retail, areas that unions have a difficult time penetrating.
Larry Haiven, a management professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, said for this reason, unions can’t be blamed for not growing their numbers. Yet to their detriment, they have had little success in improving real earning growth. “Across Canada, the real earnings in the past 25 years have been flat.”
A former union leader himself, Mr. Haiven just conducted a study of earnings in Nova Scotia. While productivity in the province has shot up 62%, average adjusted earnings in the past 25 years have gone up only around 9%.
“And this [disparity] is by no means exceptional,” he added.
The implications, Mr. Haiven explained, is that the wealth from such efficiency is not being distributed, which might help explain why tax cuts have such appeal. Income is not rising.
He also said that scary times such as these create more general insecurity, and eventually capitulation at the bargaining table.
Now that governments seem determined to bail out troubled industries, the fate of unions could swing in either direction, experts say.
Charlotte Yates, a pre-eminent labour scholar at McMaster University in Hamilton, intimated that the current crisis leaves unions, management and government at a critical crossroads. The government could take on an antagonistic, Margaret Thatcher-like approach to break the unions while they are most vulnerable, or it could institute a New Deal-like program. “This could be a way of government relating to business in a way we’ve never seen before,” said Ms. Yates, Mc-Master’s dean of social sciences.
While the media often describes the proposals to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into industry neo-Keynesianism, she calls it “post-Keynesianism,” because the money will likely have strings attached, meaning that the businesses and the unions would be held accountable.
A harbinger of this interventionary trend came this week, when Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams expropriated AbitibiBowater’s timber and hydro assets after the multinational announced it would close down mills.
While the move was popular in many quarters, others worry about the implications of government stepping into the minefield of business and unions. “It will drive up salary and drive down productivity,” said Mr. Cirtwill of AIMS. “That’s how Danny’s model is going to work for you.”