Can labour unions re-invent themselves?

The context for my idea here is that Ottawa, Canada’s capital, is on day 34 of a full and complete public transit strike.  And while these comments were inspired by this particular strike, I think my observation might be general enough to be portable.

While a ‘bus strike’ is inconvenient any time, an Ottawa winter is a particularly unpleasant time for it:  biking or walking  are much less attractive options during snow-storms or when the mercury dips to -20 degree Celsius or lower… 

The reason for the strike?  Control.

The  details of this particular strike are really not all that important… The City of Ottawa had, a few years ago, been amalgamated from the local communities.  During amalgamation, the governance structures were not properly designed to balance the concerns of the civil service labour unions to look after their employees on the one hand and the ability of the City to manage its employees on the other.  The current Mayor and City Council have been attempting to regain the very ability to manage the City’s operations – and the City’s employees.

Now, the first of 8 or 9 employee union contracts (bunched together, from the amalgamation) has come up for renewal.  Surprisingly enough, this union chose to go on strike!

The City has offered a substantial salary increase in its latest offer  (certainly above expectations) in exchange for increased ability to manage – and prevent some blatant abuses of ‘the system’ identified in a recent audit.  Currently, this is controlled by the union – and the union has made it clear they will not give up their power, no matter what. 

Before a vote on the most recent contract offer (when the union had to be legislated to even present it to its members), the head of this union as well as the head of the ‘umberella union of unions’ have urged the members to refuse the contract ‘in solidaruty with all the other unions whose contracts are coming up shortly’.  Some members told me they left the union rally, shouting:  “We’ll stick it to Mayor O’Brien!”

Thus, we are in day 34 of the ‘bus strike’.

In a way, this bus strike has unified the citizens of Ottawa.  People give lilfts to friends, co-workers or, at times, complete strangers (I have).  It has become a sort of a ‘community building’ project.  Just about everyone, even merchants whose businesses are suffering the most, are united in their support of the City Council’s strong position – saying the Council must not give in.

Today, I was (as I often do) listening to a local open-line radio station where the host was – very effectively – asking callers what would be an effective solution:  cut through the rhetoric, the ‘rights and wrongs’ of each side’s positions, and actually try to come up with a solution which might work.  Very constructive – my compliments to him (though I have criticized him in the past on this blog).

I am a slow thinker… so, it was not until it was too late to call in that I got an idea – one I have not heard discussed anywhere before, but which I thought might break this stalemate.  And, if acceptable, this could help unions throughout ‘The West’ reinvent themselves for the emerging economy.  Have we not all seen evidence of just how out of touch with today’s economc and cultural situation many of the labour unions are?  Perhaps this could help…

It is impossible to serve two masters.  The employees cannot possibly be managed by both the union and the City at the same time – not in an effective way which would create an aimcable workplace atmosphere.  As long as there is a power struggle, there will be tension and stress and things will not work well.  Translating to bureaucrateese:  ‘Responsibility to multiple governance structures with non-congruent goals often results in an environment which has historically been unlikely to result in a positive atmosphere within the community of practice; in particular, one which would be conducive to collaborative efforts implementing best practices, thus creating a centre of excellence.’

The Resolution of the ‘Ottawa Bus Strike’ :

  • identify all sides’ responsibilities
  • identify all sides’ goals
  • find a solution to satisfy all of these

Responsibilities:

An employer – private or public – has a responsibility to its customers, citizens/shareholders as well as to its employees to manage effectively.  Here, the employer is the City of Ottawa.  In order to do fulfil its responsibilities, the City must retain management control – it is not their right, it is their responsibility to the user’s of OC Transpo (Ottawa’s public transit), to the citizens of Ottawa (the taxpayers) AND to its employees.

The labour union also has a clear mandate:  look after the interests of their membership in the workplace.  To this end, it is their responsibility to negotiate the best possible contract for their members form the emplolyer.

The employee/union member has the responsibility to live up to an agreed-upon contract.  They also have the responsibility to elect a union leadership which understand and accurately represents their best long-term interests.

Goals:

The goal of the City is to provide service to the citizens in the most effective manner possible and to live up to its responsibilities to the City’s employees.

The goal of the union is to manage things to be most beneficial to its employees.

The goal of the employees/members is to have a good job with fair compensation, with a good working conditions.

The way to satisfy all these responsibilities as well as all the goald – the best win-win solution – (in my never-humble-opinion) is to ralign who the employer is!

If these civil servants ceased to be employed by the City, but became employees of the union instead, all the goals and responsibilities would be satisfied!

The City and the union would negotiate a contract,  clearly and specifically defining all  the services the union will provide to the City,  and the price the City will pay the union for these services.  All expectations and details would be clear in the contract, with legal consequences for non-compliance from either side clearly spelled out.

The benefit to the union?  The members would retain the self-management which they are demanding by this strike – plus more.   This would not only respect the union’s jurisdiction, it would present them with an unprecedented opportunity to truly look after its membership

The benefit to the union members?  Since the union leadership is elected by the members, this would, in a very real way, be a form of self-government and would empower them.  This could only improve the workplace atmosphere – as they would be in full control of their working conditions!

The benefit to the City?  By contracting the union, rather than its members, the members would no longer be City employees, which would remove the City’s responsibility to them. The City could abolish the now-redundant layer of management and streamline its operations.  The final contract’s cost would be fixed, which would make the city’s budgeting much more efficient.

Is there a down side to this solution?

If it works,l could this model be used by other labour unions to help themselves re-structure, in order to remain relevant in the emerging economy?

Update:  Today, on day 35 of this transit strike, an opportunistic Councillor turned his back on the principles he defended as late as last week and broke ranks with the rest of the Council and, in a transparent effort to secure the backing of the powerful unions in his upcoming bid for the Mayor’s Chair, he has thrown his support behind the union. 

Still, according to my proposed model, his position would be accommodated:  the union would indeed retain the control they seek.  They would have to accept the responsibility which goes with the control they are striking to retain.

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