While perhaps one needs to give them credit for chutzpah, the CAW’s recent proposal for protecting the automotive sector from foreign competition seems motivated by a desire to return to the past, or at least to postpone the future.
No doubt, the economy is undergoing wrenching structural change, and institutions that grew and prospered under the old economic rules are having a difficult time adapting. The CAW – and private sector unions in general – are one of those institutions.
Outside the public sector, and especially in manufacturing, union membership has fallen, and is not being replaced with new blood. New union applications for certification in the Ontario manufacturing sector have fallen by about 85% since 2000-1.
It is normal and rational that unions should try to do something to stem the bleeding. Merging with other unions is one step being considered — another is trying to change the regulatory environment in ways that favour them. But is this “about the community” as the proposal somewhat self-righteously asserts, or is it about the business interests of unions and unionized employers?
Unions are filled with smart, hardworking people and one should not underestimate them. Their advocacy in this proposal displays rhetorical mastery and clever logical sleight of hand.
However, I’m sure that I am not the only one who thinks that this represents a desperate attempt to return to a situation where unions (and unionized oligopolies) exercised market power — but now within an industry that has become globalized, and thus now largely outside union influence and control.
Perhaps more attention should be paid to reforming the labour relations system in Canada. This system, like the unions it was built to serve, is showing cracks and strains as the years pass, and has become increasingly self-referential and irrelevant — more of an obstacle to change than a force for progress.
It still seems, however, that too many people still have an interest in its preservation in its current form for any real debate to take place.