The pros and cons of labour unions

Stanley Oliver
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Throughout the life of my working career, I've long supported unions and the union movement. I actually belonged to two — the Newfoundland Association of Public Employees (NAPE) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) — while employed with the provincial and federal governments, respectively.

But in recent years, I have to come to question and even doubt my support and advocacy for unions and what they stand for.

Since Labrador is currently on the brink of major resource development, unions are also now a big part of that development process. So it got me thinking; are unions necessary and are they good or bad? Thus, my stance on this topic is: “Yes, unions are important and still have a place, despite my hesitation for 100 per cent support.”

So, let’s look at both sides of the argument for just a minute.

First of all, why are unions good? In the past, in much of the industrialized world, most workers toiled in unsafe working conditions, earned extremely low pay and most importantly had little to no legal protection if injured on the job. Not to mention, the numerous unfair human resource hiring practices, that unfortunately included gender, age and sexual discrimination.

Thank goodness the advent of unions was successful in bringing about many needed improvements for workers, such as more reasonable working hours. Unions have, in my humble opinion, generally served workers well by helping them avoid being exploited by employers.

All one has to do is watch the local provincial CBC news and see that unions still have a strong impact, with public pension reform at the top of the agenda in recent months.

Now for the other side of the argument, and I sincerely apologize to all the "brothers and sisters" if you take my thoughts out of context as an insult or a condemnation of unions. That’s not my intention, folks.

Thus, while unions have done a lot of good and have helped workers avoid exploitation, they also seem to have helped workers take advantage of employers. This has obviously been a gradual shift over time, and was not the union’s initial reason for their existence.

Unions can and do affect an employer/company in many ways, including, but not limited to;

  1. unions now have the ability to affect a company's competitiveness. Meaning when bidding on contracts, many employers find themselves left in a inflexible situation when they have union contracts to abide by;
  2. in many union settings, good workers are unable to advance when their merits permit because progress for staff are often limited and defined by union contract clauses;
  3. sometimes — not always — outstanding employees might lose strong work ethics and their get-up-and-go attitude if there is no incentive to excel or worse, they may be pressured not to go the extra mile for their employer.

So there’s both good and bad associated with unions. I know that this brief article only covers the tip of the iceberg, but unions and the union movement continues to fascinate me. And as usual for me, raises more questions than answers.

Here are a few closing thoughts for your consideration and it will hopefully spur some discussion:

• if unions are no longer importantly critical, should they be abolished and if so, how?

• If unions are indeed vital to our working atmosphere, how is it that less than approximately 15 per cent of our workforce belongs to or is a part of an actual union?

• And finally, and for me the most important question: how might unions and employers/management better co-exist without one side or the other not negatively affecting each other?

— Stan Oliver writes from Happy Valley-Goose Bay and can be reached at .


Organizations: Canadian Union of Public Employees, Newfoundland Association of Public Employees, CBC

Geographic location: Happy Valley, Goose Bay

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