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For many years I had little time for unions. I saw them as outdated, no longer necessary and getting in the way of productivity and efficiency, not to mention interfering with the rights of business owners.

I believed unions meant that:

  • Some staff get away with woeful misconduct on the job,because the union protects them
  • They create a disincentive for individuals to perform well, since raises and promotions are seniority, not performance, based
  • Often union members on strike are those providing basic public services (like dealing with our garbage) and they are  so well paid for such basic work, and we taxpayers should be able to dictate that they go back.  They often have made more than me!  And they shouldn’t be allowed to be so disruptive to society!  So let’s legislate them back to work.

On top of all that, Unions have become an industry unto itself, often serving its own interests rather than the interests of its membership.

I’ve since changed my mind.


Regrettably, I think we still need unions even if some of the byproducts are less than desirable. (“Regrettably” refers to the fact that they’re needed)

If you’ve worked more than 10 years you must have witnessed some of the same things I have – gross misconduct by an employer which goes unchecked because of who holds the cards.

Here are a few examples of poor, poor employer behaviour which I’ve witnessed first hand :

  • senior executive who made advances on many of his young female staff with impunity.  Some of the young, courageous employees  made an unsuccessful attempt to go above his head to point it out, to no avail.
  • demeaning micro-managerial “style” which included insisting on submitting daily work plans, insisting that all e-mails be filtered through the manager, summarily ordering individual staff to meetings without telling the staff the purpose of the meeting and making it clear any questioning or candid discussion would be subject to discipline
  • promises of future rewards in exchange for poor salaries and no benefits, except the rewards, years later, never materialized
  • blatant favouritism that had nothing to do with the quality of work produced by the golden child
  • isolating and bullying of a target employee who by all objective standards was entirely competent and dedicated

I’d like to think that for the good of the company, if not the good of the employees, senior management would have stepped in and kicked some ass.  To my knowledge, none of the instances saw justice done except one by a lawsuit.

So here’s my argument:  until there’s a real shift across the land (which may well come as we tilt dramatically towards a labour shortage), we need unions.   Even as messy as they are, we need them.  They offer a counter weight and provide some measure of recourse to those good folks who find themselves in a situation to which they should not be subjected.

OK Readers – couple questions:

1.  Do you know of a horror story in which a union could have helped?

2. Do you agree that until employers really, really get their responsibility to create an environment generally characterized by fair play and basic decency, that we need unions?

Have at ‘er!

Photo credit: Evan G;  used by Creative Commons Licence

About the Author

Imagine if Canadians were known for being all over their money. Engaged. Proactive. Getting out of debt. Savvy. Saving. Generous. Nancy wants to help. Nancy started her own journey with money over 15 years ago, and formed her company “Your Money by Design” in 2004 to help others along the same path. It’s not the usual financial advising/investment stuff. It’s about taking control of day-to-day finances –managing monthly cashflow effectively, spending appropriately, getting out of debt, saving. If you're ready to take control over your finances, pop by her business site, YourMoneybyDesign.com


  1. After all the recent shenanigans in municipal Toronto strikes, I’ve taken another tack:
    – preserve private sector unions
    – abolish public sector unions

    Krupo´s last [type] ..Advice for the afflicted CA student- surviving the Comp


    Sep 06, 2010
  2. Mark

    This reminds me somewhat of the debates regarding feminism.

    1. Around the world, definitely. In western countries, perhaps many of the important strides have been made – but do they have to be maintained, at the risk of being lost? The attempts at organizing Walmart – and Walmart’s closing of stores to avoid unions – reminds me that there is still some relevance, regardless if it is good or bad. Perhaps trades and professionals do not feel the same need for protection, as part-time, low skill, and immigrant labour might.

    2. It’s hard to equate the needs of farm labourers dealing with pesticides vs. the challenges that some of us face worrying about getting repetitive stress disorder from scratching our butts all day. Yes, still need them. Unions are not a third party, there are the organized voice of labour who otherwise would have no voice.

    However, while I haven’t answered your questions directly, I think the problem is that unions are a vehicle, a tool. They can be blunt instruments.

    The challenge is that we have seen the rise of a new class, the labour aristocracy, who benefit from union wages and benefits, vote right wing to protect their earnings from taxation, and don’t identify with the rest of the working class.

    We also once looked to unions to promote progressive social policies, hiring practices, etc.. That hasn’t quite continued. Anyone who has worked with closed, guild-like trades and their difficulty with socio-economic agreements and Aboriginal hiring targets has seen that.

    Andre Gorz, in his book Farewell to the Working Class, determined that unions were no longer vehicles for social change. That they were – and they always had been – capitalist undertakings: they hold out their services seeking the highest return.

    Instead, Gorz saw (back in the 1980s) the emerging Green movement and the non-profit and NGO sector as the home for social and economic justice and change. Almost 30 years later, I’d perhaps like to revisit that thought for further exaination. Perhaps its still true.

    Nevertheless, Labour Day will still mean for me the right to the eight-hour day (or 7.5 hour day for most of us).


    nancyzimmerman Reply:

    @Mark Thanks for popping by and very nicely said: “Unions are not a third party, they are the voice of the organized labour”. I’m intrigued by Gorz. My hope too is in the Green movement. Its hard to care for the planet enough to radically change lifestyle or business practice, and not also extent that to justice for people. I’ll investigate his writing further.


    Sep 06, 2010
  3. Mark

    A further thought regarding question 2:

    The landscape has changed somewhat, and workers do not solely rely on unions to provide representation and advocacy – as they did years ago. Through litigation, legislation, and the establishment of human rights agencies/offices, some of the protections that employees once sought from unions are being provided by governments, arms’ length (hmm, now sure how to spell that with the apostrophe?) agencies, and the courts – especially activist judges who in the last 50 years have come to side more with the underdog and under-represented, unlike when they used to side with employers almost exclusively.

    Nevertheless, there are even some situations where coops, employee owned business, and unions themselves have been organized. Go figure.


    Sep 06, 2010
  4. 1. Yes

    2. Employers will never treat employees well of their own free will, here or anywhere else, and legislation is pointless because even if it could provide a real redress to an individual, it still requires proof, which the individual won’t have. Meanwhile, the employer doesn’t have to prove anything against an employee, they can just do whatever they want. And I’m not sure where you get the idea that we’re headed for a labour shortage, considering how many people are unemployed right now.

    The employer / employee relationship is fundamentally abusive and evil, and unions will always be indispensable. The only people who don’t see the good of them are a) those who have never worked non-union and b) those who don’t even realize their boss is shafting them. You have to be seriously disconnected from reality to not know that collective bargaining is the only way to gain fair treatment. And if the employer suffers as a result, all the better. They’re only getting back what they’ve been dishing out.
    Mongoose´s last [type] ..Bison d’automne


    Sep 07, 2010
  5. Jonathan

    1. Yes, employers using temp agencies to place employees in jobs that should be good full-time jobs. These temp workers, often working right alongside full-time workers doing the exact same job, often with no benefits, job security, at a much lower rate of pay while living in fear of being dropped if they make a complaint about an injury or unsafe work practice.

    2. We will definitely need unions until any type of corporate greed is eliminated.
    You can have the greatest boss in the world and is there anything wrong with having a good collective agreement? Would you buy a car or house without a contract? Why wouldn’t you want a good contract with you job that pays for the car/house/family etc.? You could have the best boss in the world but this can quickly change if he dies/quits/replaced or gets put into a position to save money. When push comes to shove your rights will not be the priority and any good boss should be okay with having your working arrangements in a legal agreement. The workers decide what is negotiated, NOT the union.


    Sep 09, 2010

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