Union myth busting

MYTH # 1: People are forced to join unions and pay dues

A union is created in a workplace when a majority of workers in a particular workplace sign membership cards to join a union. In most jurisdictions, this action leads to a government-supervised, secret ballot vote to determine whether the majority of people in that workplace want the union to represent them or not. 

Despite employer opposition, unions exist because the majority of workers believe very strongly that the introduction of a union at their workplace will improve their lives through better working conditions, wages and benefits.

People who oppose unions are not forced to join the union or sign membership cards. They are required, however, to pay dues. If every worker in a workplace benefits from a union contract, everyone should pay dues. If a union wins a wage increase, it goes to every worker, not only those that are members. People pay municipal, provincial and federal taxes whether or not they voted for the person or political party in office. Your street is cleaned, you benefit from fire and police department protection, and you are afforded the protection of federal laws and agencies because you pay for these services. You cannot opt out.

The same applies to the workplace. Every worker is protected by the union. Every worker enjoys the benefits of a union contract.

MYTH #2: Unions used to be necessary but there’s no need for them anymore

Not only are unions necessary, but they are often the only hope workers have of receiving fair treatment. Although employers sometimes attempt to convince employees that they would be more successful if they were not organized, this theory is not supported by either facts or statistics.

We are all aware that an increasing number of Canadians are unable to keep pace with the real cost of living and that many workers complain they cannot achieve balance between their work and personal lives. The gap between those making profits and those doing the work is widening and will continue to widen, unless workers band together to protect themselves. Collectively, union members can do more to ensure that workers are paid a fair wage and a proportional share of the profits. Unions also enable workers to achieve a more balanced life, because they negotiate provisions that give workers the opportunity to take leave and maintain balance between their work and personal lives.

MYTH #3: If you don’t like your job, you can always resign

It’s true that if you are a victim of injustice in the workplace, you can always quit. How many employees believe that the real meaning of the open-door policy is “if you don’t like what’s going on here, the door is always open, and you are free to leave.” Why should that be your only option? Why should employees be forced to accept unfair treatment, have to quit, loose their salary, give up their right to a pension or pension plan contributions and subject themselves and their family to uncertainty and to upheaval? Unions subscribe to the principle that good employees deserve to be treated fairly with dignity and respect.

When you are the member of a union, the rules governing your working relationship are negotiated and put in writing. If these rules are violated, all members are guaranteed access to a problem resolution mechanism. This is   generally achieved through the grievance procedure. Moreover, the union has a right to represent its members in the event of a violation of the Labour Code, non-compliance with employment standards, a human rights violation, etc.

MYTH #4: Unions defend people who do not deserve to have a job

If you belong to a union, the dues you pay help, among other things, to ensure that you are represented by your union if disciplinary action is taken against you or if you are unjustly dismissed. Federal and provincial legislation gives your union a mandate to ensure that each member receives equal treatment under the law and fair representation, just as an ordinary citizen would be entitled to legal representation if she/he were accused of breaking the law. Furthermore, since all citizens are presumed innocent until proven guilty, unionized employees are entitled to fair representation during the employer’s investigation and when disciplinary action and/or, dismissal materializes if the employer has valid grounds.

This means that unionized employees have a right to have due consideration given to their version of the facts. If the union investigates and discovers that the measures an employer has taken against an employee are unfair or too harsh, it will file a grievance on behalf of the employee and will strive to arrive at a fair resolution of the situation.

MYTH #5: Unions are too powerful

This is a statement you often hear from numerous anti-union spokespeople, but on closer examination, it does not accurately reflect reality. The fact of the matter is that only 30% of workers in Canada are unionized, and even unionized employers are covered by the contracts they have agreed to. There is no correlation between the size and power of unions and the number of strikes. For example, 80 to 90% of all workers are organized in Sweden and in Germany, and despite this, strikes occur very infrequently, mainly because of the enlightened policies adopted by their governments.

 In Canada, most politicians seem to be supportive of corporate interests, and their actions (and their inaction) in the past 30 years have contributed significantly to the widening gulf between the rich and the poor. Employment standards, which are supposed to defend non- Unionized workers, only provide minimum protection, and even at that, they are not always followed. Workers must report the violations themselves, because no one is monitoring the employers to ensure that their workers are being treated fairly.

Governments tend to take another approach when it comes to unions. They demand that unions be certified under the law, that they receive the official support of most workers they are representing and that they go through a long and complex legal process before a strike can be called.

The federal and provincial governments can intervene in strikes, force workers back to work and impose a settlement. Workers who refuse to go back can also be fined or imprisoned.

One is left to wonder whether this approach taken by government reflects the personal opinion of our politicians or whether it is attributable to other influences. According to Democracy Watch, companies lobby Canadian politicians full time to continue to protect their interests.

MYTH #6: Unions go on strike too often

Unions negotiate agreements, not strikes. No union wants a strike; however, strike action occurs when both parties are unable to arrive at an agreement otherwise. For unionized workers, they are synonymous with sacrifices both personally and for members of their family. Workers will not go out on strike unless the issues are so important that they are worth making a sacrifice for.

Unions will call a vote of the membership before opting for strike action which only occurs if a clear majority of workers vote in favour.

Unions evaluate their success in their ability to avoid strikes. In fact, 97% of all collective agreement bargaining sessions do not result in a strike. Despite that success rate, strikes remain controversial and do make headlines. That is undoubtedly the reason why so many people believe that strikes are the rule and not the exception.

There is no doubt that strikes sometimes can affect innocent people. However, the same can be said for almost any type of economic or other activity. Price hikes hurt too, and so does taking profits made in the country and investing them elsewhere.

Anti-union spokesmen disregard the fact that workers are also human beings. All workers want to be paid fairly for their work and receive a fair portion of the economic benefits that they help produce. And why is it when a strike occurs, blame is levelled against workers and their unions as if they were the only participants? After all, it takes two parties to create a dispute. Workers join unions for various reasons. Some reasons are universal — a greater voice, better working conditions, protection of rights, fair treatment and respect.