Overcoming the Social Taboo of Working Together to Build a Better Canada

Joe Mulhall, president of CUSW

In the 20th century, unions were tasked with the role of negotiating the distribution of wealth created by the industrial economy.

The Social Contract in North America was based on three parties: government, capital and Labour.

Each played a role in maintaining the balance between the wealth created and the distribution of that wealth.

This approach created a competition among the three interests that, over time, lead to partisan policies both at the workplace level and at the political level.

As economic activity shifted with free trade and globalization, the perception of the role of Union as part of the Social Contract also shifted.

Unions were isolated as government and capital aligned in the restructuring of the economy. Unions were no longer seen as contributors to the advancement of society, and instead became branded as resistors against the interests of capital.

The workplace in the 21st century has changed.

We have entered into a phase where the industrial mass production model has given way to an era of high-spirited creativity where around every corner we find a new way of looking at the world we live in.

Some would say that in this new world view there is no need for unions, that unions have served a purpose – if they ever had one – and modern industry and the workplace can do very well without them.

This is a viewpoint that, I suggest, is not founded on facts but instead is driven by a bias formed by the experience of the industrial relations system of the old industrial economy. This is the starting point from which the Canadian Union of Skilled Workers (CUSW) came into existence.

The CUSW was formed on the basic premise that the creation and distribution of wealth would continue into the 21st century in one form or another.

The opportunity to redefine the relationship between capital and Labour had opened up and it was timely to look at the alternatives.

It was also understood that social society had a clear role to play in choosing what that relationship would look like. The idea that an economy built around branch plants and one-industry towns could now be replaced with bottom-up community-based enterprises opened the door for both new relationships and new types of relationships.

Today we are seeing first-hand the vision of a new economy coming to life.

The vertical and horizontal structures that were the glue of the business models of the past are being replaced by groups of like-minded people coming together to create new enterprises.  Small to medium-sized enterprises are being formed around new principles.

Instead of looking at how to exploit economic activities and deal with the negative outcomes after the fact, these growth industries are looking to create businesses that have a positive effect on health, environment, use of resources and overall improvements to the quality of life.

These enterprises recognize to realize these goals there must be coordination amongst the inventors, designers, architects, engineers, constructors, operators and those left to deal with the end-of-pipe bi-products produced by the process.

There is no need to clean up the waste if we don’t create it in the first place. There is no need to implement clean air policies if we have zero emissions. There is no need to build massive power-supply facilities when conservation and energy efficiency, supplemented by distributed generation, answer the demand.

These same principles are being applied to healthcare, agriculture, mining, manufacturing, social enterprise and pharmaceuticals.

There are many challenges to realizing the opportunities of this new era.

This is an area where unions can play a role.

By coordinating the interests of the workforce with the interests of the emerging enterprises, unions can and do make a difference. 

By supporting partnerships with private sector enterprises such as SmartNet Alliance Inc. (SNA), like-minded people from all occupations and lines of work are able to come together under a common banner to explore ideas, develop action plans and create business opportunities.

SNA members share values that help realize their objective of creating wealth in a healthy social and civil society.

When bringing this alliance to life there is also a need to support the enterprises that emerge. SNA, in partnership with CUSW, provides support for the entrepreneurs who are starting these businesses by coordinating an Entrepreneurs’ Club.

From a 52-week on-line “How to start a successful small business” program to supporting payroll, clerical and other essential start-up requirements, new entrants are able to move forward with the supports they need to succeed.

CUSW members who have skills in an emerging industry or sector can make the transition from employee to entrepreneur and business owner, providing a ready-made pool of potential enterprises to move the growth agenda forward.

Many of these enterprises operate in emerging industries and find it difficult to get investment to support the move into these new areas.

CUSW is presently working on a prospectus to start a labour sponsored venture capital fund. This fund will provide investment opportunities for CUSW members and other like-minded individuals to participate in the returns created through growth opportunities that emerge as these new enterprises grow from small to medium enterprises.

The monies invested will not only contribute to the retirement funds for the members, they will also provide the financing and investment needed for these new ventures to succeed.

CUSW also works with business to ensure the employers have a skilled workforce that is aligned with their strategic objectives.

Members of the union who are displaced due to changes in the economy, plant closures or sunset industries can be redeployed in alignment with the needs of emerging industries.

New members are recruited, based on need, to support changing business plans and a willingness to embrace life-long learning.  

Members work with their workplace partner in response to the continuously changing business demands. The focus is on success and not on sharing the poverty of an ever-shrinking pool of wealth.

Through the use of enterprise-level training and education participation agreements, each employer is able to work with his/her employees to identify the strategic direction for their individual business.

Skill sets are identified and workers provided opportunities to align their skills with that business need.

The issue of skills shortages is resolved on an employer-by-employer basis instead of trying to work within broad-based government initiatives that miss the mark as often as they hit it.

With these partnerships in place, employers are able to look forward to taking on new challenges and introducing new technologies and work methods knowing that the workforce is in lock step with them in building these new work opportunities.

Members benefit by increasing their skills while sharing in the wealth created through the partnership. 

Through the use of a modern learning management system and courses at the union level, members can stay current in acquiring knowledge and skills in the demand areas.

By continually upgrading skills through life-long learning with the demands identified through the various training participation agreements these members can look back to the union for further redeployment with other partner enterprises should future changes in technology affect their current employment relationship.

According to the Conference Board of Canada – close to 40 per cent of the population in Canada is now self-employed.

This shift away from permanent, full-time jobs is expected to continue leaving major gaps in the social fabric.

The legal recognition of “union status” granted by labour law allows members to come together and build benefit trust plans, retirement trust and wealth management programs, member assistance plans, health, safety and wellness programs, community based social activities as well as providing the tools for building new and successful opportunities.

Where appropriate the social contract of wealth creation and distribution is reinforced with recognition of the legal rights of union members.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes the right of members to have a voice in the operation of the union and workplace.

In this new era, what was once seen by employers as interference in the operation of the enterprise is now seen as opening the door to a true partnership with the common goal and a focus on building a better economic future and a better Canada.

Is there a place for unions? There sure is.