Charlie Brown always thinks he's going to kick the ball, but Charlie Brown always ends up falling on his back. He's never really out of the game, and he's always keen to try again—but each time he falls.
I was reminded of poor Chuck when I read the Conference Board of Canada's recent brief on the state of unions in Canada. If you take a look at the graph of union coverage, you feel almost as bad for unions as you do for Charlie Brown, lying on his back looking up at the sky.
The Conference Board's report suggests that in order to grow itself, "the labour movement must find a way to make strides in organizing some industries that have traditionally remained elusive—such as the services, agriculture, and financial sectors." This is an important point, of course, but it ignores two others.
First, even in traditionally organized sectors—construction, for instance—union density rates remain extremely low. Why concentrate on "new markets" when market share in traditional unionized fields remains so small?
Second, while growth can always be found in "new markets," the Board report seems to downplay the notion that some markets are not particularly suited to unions. Of course, the report suggests that this is precisely the point. Unions will need to change to enter those markets. As the report notes, "unions will need to be creative in growing their membership base to secure their social and political power but also their financial future." But what if the premise of success—that is, the "security of social and political power, but also their financial future"—is itself the problem?
I was reminded of this as I read Ross Douthat's recent column on the state of the working class in the U.S. Douthat suggests that "we've gained a world where steady work is less necessary to human survival than ever before." Where, despite low workforce participation, the US doesn't have abject poverty, nor is it in danger of going broke from some of the programs which enable some to not work and yet "by historical standards [live] lives [that] are more comfortable" than many others in this world.
Douthat ends his piece not by celebrating this but by noting that while thriving without work is technically feasible, "human flourishing is another matter. And it's our fulfillment, rather than the satisfaction of our appetites, that's threatened by the slow decline of work."
I wonder if we might apply the same rubric to unions and map that against their decline and failure to expand their membership in existing or new markets. Might a union movement which seeks social, political, and financial power, rather than seeking human flourishing and fulfilment in work, be dead before it even begins? Perhaps what is needed is less talk about how to expand or maintain power, but a re-evaluation of why we work and why it's good for us, and how unions might best serve those ends.
There are four issues in particular that unions would do well to institutionalize as part of their work. I'll take these up in a later blog:
- The recognition of merit and recognition as integral to human work, even work within a collective setting. And, related to this,
- The recognition of individuality.
- The recognition of the limits of politics as related to workplaces and,
- The recovery of an older, different, conception of solidarity.
Perhaps, after mapping our answers to those questions against the current structures in the union movement, we might come up with some real suggestions for "creative growth."