What is the role of Labour Unions in 2022?

Full Transcript Below

[ANNOUNCER]: Breaking down everyday workplace issues and diagnosing the hidden sickness not just the obvious symptom, our hosts James and Coby.

[COBY]: Did we lose a patient?

[JAMES]: No that’s just my lunch.

[COBY]: Hey thanks for joining us. I’m Coby, he’s James. Let’s get started with a question. What is the role of labor unions in 2022?

[JAMES]: That’s a great question, because honestly the role for labor unions needs to evolve and largely hasn’t since their heyday in like the 60s and 70s. And in my opinion, that’s a large contributing factor to why unionization rates in Canada and the US are so low. Our public sector in Canada experiences high, fairly high unionization rates. You know if you’re working for government, or government-funded agencies, there’s a pretty good chance that you are part of a union in Canada. If you’re working in the private sector on the other hand, by and large the vast majority of people are not a part of a labor union. Whereas if you look at, geez well now, it would be 50 or more years ago, unionization was huge and it was seen as the ticket for many people to a long and successful career.

[COBY]: Yeah and the whole idea of that the impact that the unions kind of really had. I mean not to not to go into our history lesson, but the background context, I think is kind of important. Because I mean that’s why we have like the 40 hour work week, the norms, the weekends, a lot of stuff kind of evolved from the early work, you know going back before the 60s and 70s. But like, even so there really has been a strong history in shaping the workforce and shaping how we understand work, really was largely impacted by unions. But where we are now, where we are now in 2022, I think it actually with another big shift the workforce happened with COVID and the lockdowns. So I think this is a good time for us to be looking at unionization with with some fresh eyes.

[JAMES]: And the timing is really good because if you have been paying attention to workplace related news, you will have seen over the last couple years a pretty significant increase in at least the publicity around labor unions and strike actions primarily. Like if you if we look over the last three years Starbucks is a great example. In the past three years they’ve had, or since the union drives, have really started in earnest with Starbucks, over 300 of their stores have filed petitions for, to join a union. Over 200 of those stores have voted to unionize at this point. Which is a huge and astonishing number in light of the numerous allegations of union busting efforts by Starbucks during this whole process. And then you’ve got Amazon another very high profile company that has some very high profile labor disputes, and some challenges. But there’s a huge, the fact that there are, I think at right now, there’s only about two warehouses maybe that, Amazon warehouses, that have actually successfully unionized. But Amazon has been very public with their efforts to keep the union out of the workplace. And their success, I think, it’s the success of the Staten Island warehouse has really driven an effort in Canada by trade unions to try to really focus on unionizing the Amazon workplaces here in Canada, as well. We’ve seen some really public strike actions happen with Kellogg’s 1400 workers who walked out over poor conditions and two-tiered pay structures. It picked up a lot of publicity during COVID that this was going on, with you know videos and marketing material being produced by like Bernie Sanders camp to really let people know what’s happening. And then, I mean we’re recording this early September 2022. School has just started back up in the last week or so and Seattle teachers have formally gone on strike the day when most students return to school. And here in Canada the Ontario Teachers union is entering contract negotiations with the government, and the name calling and scare tactics have already started in the media. There’s, it’s not that we haven’t seen any strike action or we haven’t seen any unionization efforts, you know over the last 20 or 30 years. The efforts have really been ongoing. But there seems to be a sense of a resurgence right now among certain sectors, in retail, in food service, and traditionally in manufacturing is where we’ve seen a lot of the efforts kind of pop back up.

[COBY]: Yeah and I think that one thing, why I think it’s really important for us to be talking about unions in a little bit different way, is it’s kind of like the idea of unions really hasn’t evolved, like as you said, kind of, you know, for a long time. Like it’s almost like we still think about unions in the same kind of old school way that we kind of think about like you know like healthcare. Diagnosed The Workplace! So it was like healthcare, you know, it’s almost like unions, the same as like what leeches were thought of. It was resolving medical conditions, right? Like there’s this really old, you know, traditional understanding of what their role is, and how they have, how they impact things. But I think that one thing that we need to do, is we need to update, beyond the leeches, we need to move up to you know some actual, some new value that can be, that can come from what unions can provide. Because there is something that I think that we probably see in our work, that maybe goes a bit missed by many, many people. Because we are workforce specialists, we’re workforce consultants, we see a lot of, our job is to stay on top of major workforce factors and issues. And one thing that we do know is that there is an opportunities that unionized workplaces can provide. But part of the reason why they never seem to go to the potential that they could, is part of this old-school view that “union = bad” and so they have to be busted on the side of the workplace. Or the public’s like “oh another union” or there’s, we need to almost come at them with some fresh eyes because there is some real good, or there’s some there’s some really unique opportunities that can really come if we truly understand them. And I think it’s why people, I think the people that are listening James, need to understand you actually have a really great perspective on a lot of this stuff. So you have worked in non-unionized environments, you’ve worked in unionized environments, you’ve been involved in unions, in locals, at provincial levels, at national levels, you’ve been on both sides of the table in companies, in organizations that have been having have a union starting up, and you’ve been involved with ones that have fallen apart. So I think that you probably have a really well-rounded view about the pros and cons. And I think more importantly, the opportunity or the role that unions should have in 2022 and beyond.

[JAMES]: Yeah I do have a lot of experience working with unions, and in unions, and for unions. And let’s be, like no opinion is unbiased, right? That’s kind of the definition of an opinion. Anyways I certainly have a more favorable default, in some respects, but what I really want to focus on is…


And it’s funny because we talked about the the role of the unions, and that is what I want to talk about. But there, I don’t want to confuse role with purpose. The purpose is still, has always been, the advancement of workers rights. Unions formed out of a need to balance the inequality in power that was present in the workplace. And we’re talking going back  100 to 120, 130, 140 years ago.


That purpose remains the same. That a good union is focused on providing a good quality of wages, of experience, is making sure that the factors of the workplace are largely,


have a bit more balance than they would be if there was no collective action happening. There are fantastic examples of unions that have been successful in, you know, building that balance. And there are many examples of unions who that have done a very poor job of that. To me, a union is successful when they help a business be successful.

[COBY]: And I think that, I think that is a really, like I’m gonna cut you right off, because I like to do that. I think, but yeah I think that is a point that we should just sit on for a second. Because no one benefits when  either union, or a business, is in it for the wrong reason and is taking advantage of their counterpart. Because I think one thing that we kind of need, you need to kind of dismiss, you know early on in this podcast is that when as you go forward, we’re talking about unions and businesses  that are, you know, not in it to be corrupt. That are in it for the right reasons, are coming in with good faith. But I think it is important to acknowledge both organizations and unions are made up of flawed individuals. That, you know, people who can, you know, that maybe were in it for the right reasons at the time, and made poor decisions, or this or that, but I think that that as long as both the businesses and the unions, everyone involved comes into the entire experience, the workplace, negotiations, all of it, kind of in good faith and are willing to get, like you know, not assume that they’re impervious to making mistakes, and everything. I think it’s important for us to say that people can, you know, can make those mistakes. But we really want to focus on the fact that there are people that, the most, majority are in for the right reasons and that’s really who we’re talking about.

[JAMES]: So you talked a little bit about my involvement, like, so to give you a little bit more context. I was involved as vice president and chief steward in a local union. When I, in a previous career, I was involved in labor relations, contract negotiations, regional councils, occupational councils, you know, I served on provincial board of directors, I was involved in unionization, in union drives, I was involved in supporting strike actions in other locals, I’ve been experienced or been exposed to a lot of different aspects. And you are correct when you say, you know, the vast majority of people are in it for the right reason. The common stumbling block that I have seen from my experience is that while people are get involved for the right reasons, the environment is structured around conflict. And everything is very conflict-centric. And the vast majority of people who get deeply involved in the labor movement, what I’ve seen, is a tendency to swing to the extreme of, “all managers are out to get us”, “all bosses are bad”. Because when you are immersed in conflict day in and day out, that becomes your baseline. And for many of these people, they are stewards who are handling grievances, they are constantly in this state of

conflict with management. And unfortunately that translates to so many other aspects, and it becomes the default for many people. Which hinders the ability for a union to really speak to what’s important. And to me, what’s important is how do we help our members have a good quality of living; that’s wages, benefits, and the factors of the workplace.

[COBY]: Yeah and I think that, again it’s really is easy for, I mean, anyone that’s involved in a workplace, unionized or not, that is rife with conflict, knows how much that kind of like that taints the environment. And how much that really makes it challenging and hard to see things with a clear view and and can make things kind of difficult in general. But I think that when it comes to a lot of the issues that arise between organizations, like the businesses and their unions, it is in the assumption of the interactions, the negotiation, the collective bargaining, kind of everything, is kind of based, correct me if I am wrong James, but it’s kind of based on this assumption that everything is a zero-sum game.

[JAMES]: Well it is, and because that’s the way that we approach negotiations, right? We enter negotiations with the thought that in order for me to, it doesn’t matter what side you’re of the table you’re on, in order for me to get something, the other person has to give it up, right? That’s kind of the definition of zero sum, is I gain by taking from somebody else. And that’s how we largely approach negotiations from both sides of the table, right? We need to, from the business perspective, it’s we need to keep these people from taking from us. From the union perspective, it’s we need to take our fair share, right? And that perspective bleeds over to the negotiations at the table.

[COBY]: Yeah and from the outside, that’s really easy to see how that could, how that could be, but I don’t know. Does it have to be that way?


[JAMES]: There is going to be conflict. You have two groups that have differing objectives, right? Or at least we talk about them as differing objectives, and I think one of the challenges… To answer your question, the short answer is No. The long answer is No, but.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We have to recognize that there’s always going to be that give and take. That there’s always going to be that, that there’s always going to be some conflict, because our objectives do not align perfectly. What would alleviate a lot of the challenges is the development of common language, right? If, as a business, we could enter into negotiations with the labor union using the same language, it would help alleviate a lot of confusion, a lot of miscommunications. For example, we’ve talked about this a lot and one of our big core theories is around what we call “The 7X3 Rule” and it’s all about how the factors of your workplace need to be addressed through the lens of employees expectations. 7 Factors, 3 Expectations. And this could actually be a really useful tool for both businesses and unions, to frame the conversation, right? So if we look at, a classic negotiation topic is wages, right? That’s going to be, that’s always going to be on the table. [COBY]: That’s a big one.

[JAMES]: That’s a big one.

If we can approach our conversation about wages using the same language of those expectations, that wages need to be competitive, they need to be sufficient, and they need to be equitable. From a business perspective, you want your wages to be competitive, sufficient, and equitable. Because if they are not competitive; then people are going to go to your competitors for that higher wage. If they’re not sufficient; then as in not enough for people to actually accomplish their goals or to live off of, then they’re going to be looking for other ways to supplement their income. And if it’s not equitable; you’re going to land yourself in a whole host of problems. So a business wants their wages to be competitive, sufficient, and equitable, because it can, it’s foundational and you can’t have success in many of the other business areas that we talk about, like engagement, motivation, productivity, all of these things are dependent on whether or not there’s high or low levels of job dissatisfaction. Unions want competitive, sufficient, and equitable, right? They want their members to receive wages that are competitive within the industry, and within the region. They want them to be sufficient, insufficiency is actually a big one for many labor unions, right? They need to be sufficient to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. And from a wages perspective, we’re largely talking about “can I support myself and or my family on the wages that I earn?” And they need to be equitable. And the equitable piece is actually where most of the union’s day-to-day activities take place. Ensuring that things are equitably applied, that’s where, you know, the role of local shop stewards. And those activities play a big piece, big role in that equitable aspect. But just by framing our conversations through this same language, we will differ on what we consider to be competitive, we will differ on what we consider to be sufficient, but at least if we’re using the same language. Then we can talk about things in terms that both sides understand and we know we have a common goal now, that we are trying to reach an agreement on what is competitive, we are trying to reach an agreement on what is sufficient, rather than we’re trying to reach an agreement on wages as a big broad topic. We can be more focused in our communication, in our conversations, and define those things together. Those expectations.

[COBY]: Yeah so, what’s interesting. So I give a lot of talks, a lot of webinars, I speak a lot of conferences, and stuff like that. And one of our major areas that I’ve been talking about a lot this past year has been the kind of fallout of The Great Resignation. You know, the high turnover rates kind of what’s happening globally. And a lot of the conversations that I have, the talks that I give at the conferences or whatever, is often around The 7X3 Rule. Again competitive, sufficient, and equitable. And it’s always interesting, I always love talking to people after we give a webinar, after I give, I speak at a conference, because people are always like, “wow, yeah, you know we’ve always been so focused on competitive, and that’s where all of our efforts are. But now that we know the expectations of the workforce have changed, and they really expect sufficient and equitable to be as important as competitive”. And so what’s really cool, and actually kind of, I think one of the things that kind of opened up our eyes, is that we didn’t, I don’t think you and I originally always thought about competitive, sufficient, and equitable in the union concept until people approached us about it. Be like, “wow you know what, that makes a lot of sense”. “Like you know I’m a ERO for a union and you know that that idea is really interesting”. And then I’ve spoken to you know HR heads or people responsible, high up in different companies, and like, “Yeah, that that language is actually something that would allow us to find that middle ground between talking with our unions and everything like that”.

[JAMES]: I want to be clear this is not a, there are no like golden bullet solutions, right? Like it’s not this one, do this one, “companies hate this one trick”, you know, the clickbait.

It’s a starting point, right? You need to enter into negotiations in good faith on both sides and when you don’t a whole host of things go wrong very, very quickly.

If you can enter into negotiations in good faith, and have a common language that both sides understand, it will help to alleviate many of the challenges that we experience during negotiations, right? It’s not going to fix every problem immediately, but building that natural alignment, right? There needs to be respect for the people who are sitting across the table from you. If you view them only from an adversarial perspective then you’re, you may be successful at the negotiating table but you’re going to hurt yourself in the long run. A company that has a good union that is focused on, you know, helping their members to, you know, participate in the workforce, to be able, that are addressing the issues around equitability, that approaches a labor relations conversation as a partnership, will be far more successful than those that go in swinging, right? and I’ve seen that, I’ve seen the “I don’t care what they say, this is what I want, this is what I’m getting, and damn anybody who gets in my way”.

[COBY]: Yeah, because there are a lot of workplaces that think of the, there are a lot of workplaces, a lot of people on both sides again we talked about both are made up of flawed individuals. They kind of come in swinging or they both, they see, like you know, the organizations see the union as kind of like a cancer. And that’s, and the, you know, the workers in the union see that see the workplace is kind of like, you know, something that’s causing disease. It’s really like, you know, messy and muddy and everything like that. But you’re right, if they come in without this, or with this commonality, this middle ground, that’s the language that people told me, and I think that’s a great way to think about it. If competitive, sufficient, and equitable is the middle ground, then that’s kind of that agreement of it. Like almost like, 80%, 75% of the  conversations that happen at the negotiation table are probably going to be about if we come in agreeing on that, then what that means and what that looks like, and how you measure and judge that, makes the conversation much different. As opposed to kind of coming in swinging, or coming in with this trying to tackle the huge issue of wages, or job security, or whatever, because when we talk about The 7X3 Rule, competitive, sufficient, and equitable are the 3. The 7 are things like working conditions, wages, safety, wellness, policies, job security, and the consistency of work. But I do think having that common language can actually, almost, make the relationship between an organization and a union a lot more mutually beneficial, than if it’s solely adversarial.

[JAMES]: And I want to focus in on those 7 factors, because we asked the question at the beginning, you know, what is the role of a labor union? Well if you look historically and what it should be today, historically unions have been focused on working conditions, on job security, on compensation, on safety, on all of those factors, consistency of work. The factors that you just identified. The role for unions in 2022 is to focus on the factors of the workplace. Their role is 7X3, making sure that working conditions are competitive, sufficient, and equitable. Making sure that job security is competitive, sufficient, and equitable. That consistency of work is competitive, sufficient, and equitable. If we want to answer the question of, what is the role for a labor union in 2022? The answer is The 7X3 Rule.

[COBY]: Yeah and so what’s funny is that The 7X3 Rule isn’t, it didn’t come from a union background theory. It’s actually a psychological theory that’s been derived from Frederick Hertzberg’s theories called the Motivation-Hygiene Theory, that’s about eliminating job dissatisfaction, and the things that cause high turnover, disengagement, burnout. So it’s actually an employee motivation concept, and so what’s really funny is, if you think about it, the things that attribute to low motivation, high employee turnover, high burnout, are the same kind of factors that unions are supposed to be focusing on. Which makes sense from to me, as a Workforce Specialist, because when we work with companies, all over, and it’s funny when I see two comparable, same manufacturing clients, I can think of two in my mind right. Now I’m not going to say who they are, but I can think about them. One of them is not unionized and has honestly, a pretty terrible working conditions, the wages are competitive, but they’re not sufficient or equitable, the policies are very one-sided, there’s a lot of issues, and they suffer high employee turnover, low motivation, major burnout, they can they cannot keep people, and their their plant is far less profitable, and honestly probably won’t be around for the, a long time. When another plant has a union, has a good union, has a good relationship with the union, and they have much higher retention, much higher engagement, they fail vacancies so quickly, a lot of and they have so much, much less vacancies, so it’s kind of, in this sense, I wouldn’t say it’s just the union.

[JAMES]: And I want to, I want to clarify. It’s the approach to the conversation, there’s a mutual, there’s a mutual respect there. Having worked with the companies, the senior leadership does not view the union as the enemy, right? And the union does not view the company as the enemy.

[COBY]: They both don’t go into it as a zero-sum game.

[JAMES]: Right. Now it’s not,

because they have a union, it’s because they have mutual respect. And there’s, the union has been successful in negotiating some key workplace factors. Like job security, like wages, wellness policies, which contribute to their very low turnover rates.

[COBY]: Yeah absolutely. And, but also, on the side of like, you know, we  also see a lot of trends that happen with the workforce itself, but I mean a lot of the draw to the unionized manufacturing plant, as opposed to the non-unionized one, is the union itself. To know, okay because like there’s almost like a minimum expectation. Okay I know these things are going to be there, because that’s what the union has fought for, and provided, and it’s reinforced. Where the other one, I don’t know what this company is going to be like, you know. So it’s not, you’re right, and I shouldn’t imply that unions magically solved all the problems. But then, the right environment, the right approach, the right mindset, the common ground, the middle ground made, does make a big difference. And I think that we talk about what the role of unions in 2022 and even beyond, should be I think, that there’s a missed opportunity if that’s not a big part of what they’re trying to achieve. Because, I mean, reducing job, because all companies want to reduce job dissatisfaction, increase employee retention, reduce a lot of the burnout and safety accidents. And you know, so there’s stuff that unions are responsible, or should be focused on, and if they’re both acting in good faith, can achieve that actually have a lot of great business outcomes, if done properly.

[JAMES]: Yes and

there’s definitely, there’s benefits to a business and having a good union, let’s clarify, qualify that, a good union also recognizes that a business is in business to make a profit. And that profit is not in and of itself a bad thing. There has to be recognition from the union that this entity, this business, that we are negotiating with has objectives that have to be met. And a good union will recognize that the success of the company will increase the success of their membership. Which should be their focus, right? Like it should really,

[COBY]: It’s a symbiotic relationship.

[JAMES]: It sounds pie in the sky to say, oh it should be a happy relationship, it’s not always going to be a happy relationship, right? There are contradictory perspectives and outcomes, but it can be a mutually respectful relationship.

[COBY]: Well it is a symbiotic relationship, I mean one requires the success of the other. A workplace can’t be sustainable if it weakens and damages the long-term success of its employees. And a union can’t be successful if the business that employs its members, if it weakens and brings down the company. Then both so both futures are tied together. So that respect and acknowledgement has to be there, that has almost be a fundamental part of going into it. But I think, like I said going into it, and again maybe it’s simple in my mind, but my mind’s kind of simple at times too. Anyway, but the idea of, like you know, that the unions or their organizations, you know, there’s a symbiotic relationship. They need one another to succeed. If they go in with good faith, and with common language, they can probably take a big chunk out of the major issues that are addressing, both the employees and the businesses themselves, to be sustainable and successful in the future.

[JAMES]: I think there’s, I love where the conversation has gone. I do think there’s one aspect that we’ve glossed over, that if we don’t address would be a significant oversight. And that’s the fact that not all businesses approach the perspective of unionization as a potentially positive impact.

[COBY]: The majority of them don’t.

[JAMES]: Right, and so the question that comes from that, is how do you get to a point where you can have a conversation based on mutual respect? If you look at some of the examples that I listed when we started, you know, Starbucks and Amazon have been very, very public with their intentions and the activities and the amount of money that they’ve invested in making sure that the union fails. How do you then create, enter into negotiations in good faith, right? How do you then enter in negotiations with a sense of mutual respect? And this is why when we talk about things, there’s work on both parts and there has to, businesses need to come to the realization that,

if you approach negotiations from a different perspective, you can achieve better business outcomes. But that is only going to happen if we can get people thinking about labor relations from the perspective of The 7X3 Rule. In my mind, answering the question of; how do we get there? is our conversations need to be permeated with this language of competitive, sufficient, and equitable. If we can get both sides to agree on language, then we can build the mutual respect. But that’s not going to happen until people are willing to, people on both sides of the table, are willing to negotiate in good faith and attempt to find some common language.

[COBY]: Right, now and I think that’s that’s great. So I think I’ll actually summarize this entire talk. You did a good job there, but I’ll just puts a little bit more, a little cherry on top of it. So what is the role of unions in 2022? Well we’ve seen a bit of a revitalization in unions in the past little while, after after a big, big decline in unionizations over a much longer history of 50 years or so. But a lot of this is coming to, you know, there are a lot of businesses and unions that kind of come into negotiations with the wrong attitude. And often it’s because we all have to acknowledge that there’s flawed individuals that exist on both sides. But the mistake that we can often make when we’re trying to carve out our mutual success is going into conversations as if they are a zero-sum game. That I can only succeed if you fail. And I think that what we need to do is reframe our approach to having our conversations around unions, and what unions can be, and start looking at the common language that could exist by leaning into The 7X3 Rule. Which is the idea that factors of the workplace like working conditions, wages, safety, wellness, policies, job security, and consistency, need to be all competitive, sufficient, and equitable. And if we do that we could create a middle ground between unions and workplaces that will allow for a common goal of removing job dissatisfaction, that would benefit unions by helping get the working conditions and environment that give employees what they need to have success. And actually allow businesses to retain, and engage, and motivate employees at a much higher level. And that’s possible if we attack things with common language in good faith, and we look at this as a mutually beneficial opportunity instead of a war. And I think that kind of summarized it. Any last comments James?

[JAMES]: No that’s great. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’re listening to us or watching this,

let us know what you think. Are we, what is the role for unions in 2022 and beyond? We’d love to hear your thoughts so and feel free to send…

[COBY]: And feel free to send those messages right to James on Twitter @JamesFromRoman3. He would love to hear your opinions on that, so  feel free to absolutely do that.

[COBY]: All right so that about does it for us. So For a full archive of our podcasts and access to the video version hosted on our YouTube channel visit our website at roman3.ca/podcast. Thanks for joining us.

[JAMES]: Thanks everyone.

[ANNOUNCER]: For more information on topics like these don’t forget to visit us at roman3.ca. Side effects of this podcast may include improved retention, high productivity, increased market share, employees breaking out in spontaneous dance, dry mouth, aversion to the sound of James’s voice, desire to find a better podcast…

Share what inspires you