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Standing Horn to HornStanding Horn to Horn

Standing Horn to Horn

The premise behind this is that individual employees, left on their own, resemble nothing so much as this.

2 minute read
Topics: Industrial Relations, Labour, Institutions
Standing Horn to Horn March 25, 2013  |  By Brian Dijkema
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One of the points of collective bargaining—indeed the key point of collective bargaining—is that it is intended to replace the patchwork of individual employment contracts in a workplace with one contract, negotiated by the union, on behalf of all employees.

The premise behind this is that individual employees, left on their own, resemble nothing so much as this.

Individual contracts, goes the narrative, are the result of a power imbalance between employers and individual employees and are, if not inherently unjust, prone to injustice. The employer has the money, the lawyers, and the consultants. The employee has nothing but her skills, her brain, and a family to feed and house. A collective agreement levels that playing field. It evens the power relationship so that, instead of becoming the poor little blighter in the video above, employees resemble this:

Of course there is a lot of missing nuance here. The narrative described above is overly simplistic and misses large parts of what might be a more robust defense of collective bargaining. But it does show that there is a tendency—no, an imperative—for unions to present a solid front. To use the old language, there must be solidarity when facing the employer and within the workplace itself. There are to be no special deals; you cannot negotiate your own raises or working conditions; you must abide by the will of the entire workplace community. A catch phrase which, rightly, captures this sensibility is the union slogan "equal pay for equal work."

Yet there is a price to be paid when the notion of equality is married to the typical union posture of solidarity at any cost.

If the collective agreement focuses too much on equality of wages and recognition it runs the risk of alienating those who recognize the importance of proportionality—that not all people work as hard or as well as others. In today's collective bargaining structures, proportionality is often sacrificed. Equality trumps merit.

Is this not unjust? If someone receives the same recognition (via promotion) or wages as another person who is doing better work, we recognize that a basic definition of justice—that one receives one's due—is being violated. Recognition of contribution is sacrified to equality of distribution.

But the bigger issue—the one affecting unions and other communities of labour—is that justice is more than simply an action. It's also a disposition. If workers begin to equate certain types of communities of labour with the notion that their particular contribution will not be properly recognized—if they perceive that unions create employment arrangements which are disposed to not give one one's due—workers are likely to change their posture. They might leave to find a place where their work will be recognized, they might displace or remove the impediment to recognition (i.e. remove the union), or worst of all, they might change their work behaviour to adapt to another (lower) level. One of the most common complaints about unions is that they "protect lazy workers" and "force me to work at the lowest possible level." I'm not inclined to agree with this supposition, but there are fundamental, structural flaws in the current practice of collective bargaining which bolster this complaint.

A key challenge, then, and a critical opportunity for today's Canadian and American unions: changing these structural flaws, or at least acknowledging them.


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