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21st Century Insights

Keep up with changes in the industry, and find out what's around the corner, with Joe Mulhall's thoughts about a 21st Century Union. Click on image under each topic to download the PDF.


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Managing Thought Change in the 21st Century

The Canadian Union of Skilled Workers is by definition a Union.  In 20th Century North America a Union would have been defined as:  An organization of workers formed to promote collective bargaining with employers over wages, hours, fringe benefits, job security, and working conditions. 

Cohesion amongst Union members was defined as Unity or Solidarity.  Connections between workers were directly related to the work that they performed.  Unions defined themselves as Steelworkers or Auto Workers or Electrical Workers.   Cohesion within the membership was connected to the common interests of workers that shared a workplace experience with each other.  The purpose of the Union  was to counterbalance the Power of  the Employer. Unions challenged Employers and the better they were at doing this, the more members  rallied around them.  The concept of the "big dog" was a defining role of these 20th Century Institutions. 

All of this changed with Globalization, technology change and the flight of Capital.  By the 1980's we began to be impacted by Free Trade Agreements.  Employers and the money that supported them began the migration to low cost alternatives. The era of Labour Relations strategies of Fight, Flight or Foster arrived in the workplace.

Cohesion within Union membership began to erode as workers realized that the concept of the "big dog" was no longer effective.  Many questioned the very need to have Unions.  If the Employers could avoid the Power of the Union then why have them at all?  Throughout North America workers abandoned Traditional Unions.   

This shift in thinking opened the opportunity for a broader discussion.  In his famous Best Seller book "What Do Unions Do", Richard Freeman (Harvard University) made a compelling argument that Unions are much more than Institutions that fight with employers.

Through extensive research, Freeman was able to show that Unions play a beneficial role in improving the workplace, increasing productivity, reducing economic inequality and stabilizing the work force.  Through this research Freeman showed that Unions have a far greater purpose than even most Unions realized. 

Building on this thinking CUSW has been able to build a Union that responds to the needs of members in the 21st Century.  A more modern definition of Union has emerged: A group of workers joined together in a specific type of organization for the purpose of improving their working conditions as well as to help in promoting the common interests of the group. The CUSW Constitution looks far beyond the workplace. This shift in thinking has provided the opportunity to build a role for workers to participate both in the workplace and in the community as we move forward into the 21st Century.

The shift to the 21st Century Union brings with it opportunity and with all opportunity comes challenge. As a group we are struggling to define Cohesion. We can no longer define Cohesion through the lens of a common front in the fight against employers. We can no longer define Cohesion around the type of work we do. Instead we look to define Cohesion around the needs of the Members and our families. We design our own Benefit Plans. We design our own Retirement Plans. We have implemented programs that let members choose how they want to participate in the operation of the Union and to work in the type of workplace that suits their interests and skills.

Although opportunities abound in this new reality there is a risk that Interests will consume the minds of the workers. This thinking could undermine Cohesion within CUSW.   Cohesion can be more specifically defined as the tendency for a group to be in unity while working towards a goal.

We are in a time of transition in the Economy, in the way that work is organized and in the way that we manage our relationships with the world of work. 

We are also in transition in the way that we define cohesion within the group.  To be successful in reaching our goal of becoming a 21st Century Union we must have a clear vision and understanding of Cohesion.

Our members are very creative and innovative in our approaches to Building for Tomorrow.  As we move towards this goal we will need to find unity within our group and move forward with that sense of cohesion.

We know who we are, we know where we want to get to and if we work together as a group there is no limit to what we can achieve.

– Joe Mulhall