A New Union for a New Tomorrow

The Canadian Union of Skilled Workers was founded in 1999 to create a pathway for workers and other Canadians to transition from the industrial economy that had formed the base of our society for more than 200 years, to the “information”, knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century. The founding members could visualize this transition and set out on a path to realize that goal.  Some in society would ask the question – why bother?

Unions or “trade unions”, as some refer to them today, have had a major influence in the development of both civil and social society throughout history. They have appeared in many forms. The Guilds emerged as far back as the 1200s in response to the need for civil structures of governance and a desire to ensure skilled craftsmen, quality products and value for their communities. The Knights of Labour rose quickly in the 1800s in response to a void around social justice and a lack of political solutions to resolve them, but just as quickly disappeared as their member’s dissipated and the union disappeared.

By the 20th century, a myriad of organized responses sprouted up around the globe as industrialization and the drive for profit intensified. Productivity stalled as workers rallied against the brutal treatment by employers. Wars were fought over the oppression imposed on the workforce and in some areas political movements were formed as the battle raged. By 1919, the United Nations had formed the International Labor Organization in response to the social justice violations that were rampant across the globe and by 1946, the United Nations were holding regular meetings to set labour standards that were recognized throughout the world. Work was the driver and unions were the response.

Over time industrial society divided into three distinct categories – government, employers and workers. The basis for the division is that these three groups have distinct interests and that the interests could only be harmonized if one group or the other was subject to the will of the other more dominant group or groups. The struggle over control came to define who we were as a society.

The Canadian Union of Skilled Workers was created in response to this outlook of our economic and political structure.  As the “information economy” began to emerge it became clear that there was an opportunity to redefine the relationship amongst the interests. The founding members realized that a union based on a simple employer/worker relationship that was regulated by the government would lead into the same divisions as in the society that had come before them.

The model and the relationships amongst the three categories would need to change. There was an opportunity to influence the future development of civil and social society and it was decided to take the challenge. The timing was right and the ground fertile. The centralized mass-production model was shifting to a system where local economic development was prevalent. The workforce would no longer be centralized in one location and workers would need to be able to transition to opportunities as they were created. Skills would need to be flexible and portable.

The goal of the founding members was to build a union that would redefine the way that work would be organized in the workplace while at the same time redefining the relationship between workers and the broader community.

The CUSW Constitution was drafted to go beyond the traditional view that a union is only there to regulate the relationship between employees and employers through collective bargaining. The door was opened for all citizens to join the Union even though they were not part of a union-represented workplace.  The objects of the union outlined in the CUSW Constitution reached far beyond the workplace and were written to include “all citizens of our country”.  CUSW members understood that to break down the divide in society created by the industrial economy, there would need to be opportunities to build open discussion across partisan lines.

The term “knowledge worker” formed part of the dialogue that launched the shift in the way that workers would participate in future discussions. The idea that worker-voice was expressed through the institutions that they belonged to was replaced with member-voice and participation. The members of the Canadian Union of Skilled Workers are embracing this change and are moving forward to redefine the ways that workers can participate in the society.

Today there is clearly a shift taking place in the way that we organize our economy. With every shift in the economic conditions that define a society there is a parallel opportunity to redefine the relationships that shape that society.

CUSW members believe that the workplace of the 21st century has the potential to contribute to building a civil and social environment where there is mutual respect amongst workers and employers and a sincere desire to work together for the betterment of all.

To accomplish this we are promoting a new kind of economy, a progressive economy that respects the environment that we live in and the people who we live with.  We need to work with strong partners to build capacity in that economy and we need to develop a workforce with the skills to make the transition a success.

Today we can say that we are well on our way to realizing those goals. We are part of building capacity in a sustainable economy where people matter. Through partnerships we are able to encourage like-minded people to come together to build that society.

In 1999, CUSW adopted the phrase knowledge worker to represent the concept of a worker who understands the world around them. It is a worker who can adapt to the changes that are taking place in their workplace and in broader society.  In this new economy, not only will it be up to workers to know what is taking place around them but it will also be up to them to provide their creativity and input into shaping how work is carried out.

CUSW is well on our way to bringing these ideas to life. We have developed a Leadership Academy to support the knowledge worker and our employer partners. Through face-to-face and online learning, members are able to access the information that they need to participate in the day-to-day affairs of the union and the workplace. Through the Take the LEAD programme, members learn how the union operates and the role that democratic participation has in making it a success. The union is the members.

On the employer front, we are already seeing a new style of employer emerging with a more inclusive approach to the operation of the workforce. The layers of management that once defined the industrial workplace are being replaced by a collaboration of skills and talents that break down traditional job descriptions and defined roles. Employers and workers are partners in success.

Utilizing the legal framework of a union allows architects, engineers, technicians and appropriate trade support workers to come together with a voice in the structure that these workplaces will take on. Through democratic participation in the workplace we are able to redefine these roles and set new standards for the way that work is done.  At CUSW, we already have workplaces where this is taking place in response to the changing work environment. All employees are members of the union and all members have a voice.

The 21st-century union is not restricted to members employed through a union/management labour agreement. Membership is open to anyone who shares the vision of coming together to build a social society based on the principles of inclusion and respect. Small Business owners who have joined CUSW provide a great addition to the voice within the union. Although they have no collective-bargaining relationship with the union, they are full, participating members who bring a community voice to the development of the union as we move forward.

These are exciting times. Being involved in building a “new tomorrow” at the start of a “new ERA” is the thing that stories are made of.