Trade Unions in 2017: Still the So-so-so-solution to Workplace Woes?

Trade Unions in 2017: Still the So-so-so-solution to Workplace Woes?

This column first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

Life in Quebec Magazine is a lifestyle publication covering Quebec and is published 4 times per year.

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By Nathalie Peron

You might have seen these signs on the side of the highways lately: “If your work is making you sick – you need the CSN ” or “If your boss is exploiting you – CSN.” Whether you agree or disagree with these statements about the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, and wherever you stand on the spectrum of union debate, there is room for discussion, review and (maybe?) improvement of the state of labour unions in 2017.

Unions have existed in Québec for 200 years: they have defended workers’ rights, been involved in the creation of labour laws, helped create labour institutions and founded or contributed to many political parties. To say that they played an essential role in creating today’s labour rights landscape is an understatement, and every worker owes a debt of gratitude to those union activists who have fought for fairness, safety and respect in the workplace.

That being said, we are no longer in the 19th century, nor are we in the early 20th century or in the 1960s, for that matter, and the world has changed exponentially since then. Yet unions in Québec are still governed by a law – the Labour Code – that was passed in 1964.

In 1961, according to Statistics Canada, 5.3 million people lived in Québec, of which 50 per cent were working people aged 20-64. The population rose to 8 million inhabitants in 2011, of which 62.6 per cent were part of the working population. The thing is, though, that the population’s median age rose as well, from 24 years old in 1961 to 41.4 in 2011. Studies predict the average age of the Québec population will keep rising, all the way to an estimated 46.4 in 2056. This also means that despite the fact that the population keeps increasing in number, the working population is going down.

So, back to unions. In recent debates over their relevance, some argued that unions are still relevant because they create a balance of power between employers and employees, especially when it comes to working conditions, wages and health and safety problems. Not all bosses are competent, and unions are there to help defend the employee stuck in a bad situation with a bad boss. There is also the case of people who just don’t have much choice in the jobs they can have. Workers who are less educated or at the mercy of unfortunate social or economic situations can’t decide to simply get up and leave a job; it wouldn’t be easy for them to find replacement employment.

François Lambert, renowned businessman and former Dragon in Québec’s version of Dragon’s Den, has been a vocal opponent of systematic unionizing. His opinion is summed up in the title of a recent Facebook post “Si ton boss t’exploite – Décrisse!” (I believe translation would void the impact Lambert was going for, and I should mention that this was repeated in a live televised debate with Jacques Létourneau, president of the CSN.) Lambert’s main argument  is this: if your boss exploits you, even if you are unionized, would you still want to work for them? A union won’t make your boss more likable. It won’t prevent stupid bosses from being stupid. Or unfair.

A union won’t make your wages any better; these, as well as other working conditions, were agreed upon right at the start when you were hired. And a union won’t save your job. If there are cuts to be made they will be made nonetheless. And today, in a world where Québec’s median age keeps increasing and the number of younger workers decreases, foolish bosses don’t deserve to keep their employees or their businesses. In order for a business to function properly, you need qualified employees. And how do you keep them working for you? You keep them happy; you satisfy their professional aspirations through training, for example, you acknowledge their contribution to the company and you give them something they can’t find elsewhere.

OK, so there are laws governing work relations, health and safety, and basic working conditions. There is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There are para-governmental institutions established to support claims and tribunals to enforce labour laws and sanction infractions. And there is growing awareness of the importance of positive work environments. I believe there is still room for unions within all these options, as support systems for employees in need of help navigating through these administrative mazes, on a case-by-case basis, without imposed union dues or other required contributions.

I’m not saying that if your boss is a jerk you should throw your life into turmoil and quit. But why make yourself sick by staying at a job you don’t like? Or why help a company thrive when your boss is slowly sucking the life out of you? At least go and look at what else is out there. You might find a professional silver lining to the cloud hanging over your career. There might be a job out there that pays a tad less but where you find respect, understanding and purpose. I believe in self-determination; you, the employee, are solely responsible for your own happiness and well-being. For some, unions might be the solution. But for most cases, I think the solution lies elsewhere.

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About Author

Nathalie Peron

Naturalized Quebec City citizen, Nathalie has studied in literature and as a paralegal, the latter stemming a career she has strived in for the past 10 years, notably in workers’ compensation cases. Artistically inclined, she has acted in amateur theatre for 25 years and has lately added singing to her amateur CV. She now stretches her professional wings to writing, both corporate and creative texts, hoping to meld both her artistic and legal personalities.

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