Thursday, September 8, 2011

Unions: Past their Expiry Date?

Why do we have unions?  I mean really--in Canada, are people oppressed?  Are workers being exploited?  Is the life-expectancy of the proletariat lower than the bourgeoisie?

The Saskatchewan Government Employees Union (SGEU) rejected SIAST (Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology) latest offer.  They walked away from the table and rather than find a settlement, decided to strike.  Rather than look at who is right/wrong in this specific instance, I would like to look at the larger issue of--are unions still relevant.

Over the course of this strike, I commented to one person that it seemed that the instructors--compared to their counterparts in Western Canada, were adequately compensated, so why the need to strike.  The reply was "To keep it that way."  And, I suppose that is the main reason that unions exist.  The utter distrust in the free market.  And, to a certain degree, I would agree that left completely unchecked we will see serious abuses--people are greedy and corporations sometimes do evil things that affect their employees.

HOWEVER, what we are talking about in this case is a union in the public sector (and most strikes recently have been from unions in the public sector).  These are unions whose members are paid from our tax dollars.  These are not evil corporations looking to squeeze every last dime of profit out of labour.  These are elected governments who are trying to maximize our tax dollars while providing the best service possible.

Additionally, we are not talking about unskilled labour.  We are, for the most part, talking about instructors with specialized fields of training.  Much like nurses and doctors, these folks have options.  No longer is Saskatchewan faced with the "Brain Drain" of the 80's and 90's.  Our public sector employees now choose to stay in Saskatchewan because the pay IS equitable.  If it were not, they would simply indicate so--as they did in the past--by moving.

Now, if SGEU were striking for reasons other than "pay" then I might have sympathy.  If their members were facing unbearable working conditions or were being phased out early...but, of course, we now have Labour Standards enshrined in The Canada Labour Code (thanks to our union brethren) and none of those things are possible because we've already achieved pretty fair working conditions...but they are striking for "pay."

But, they refuse to negotiate.  Generally,  in cases where "pay" is involved...the worker doesn't benefit.  The negotiated settlement will be so small that the back pay will not be enough to cover off the lost wages of the workers while they're on strike.  So, the union MAY prove a point, but the worker WILL pay the price.

No, don't be fooled.  Unions don't strike for "pay" they strike for "power."  This is all about who calls the shots.  And, in the game of power--victims be damned.  So sorry students, but your future might just have to go on hold for a few years because this union wants to flex its muscles.

This strike is not about making enough money to feed a family.  This strike is not about decreasing the work week to 40 hours.  Unions already did that.  And, we all THANK you for that.  I wish for once, unions would simply acknowledge that things are pretty good here right now and just be content.  But, no...this is about power.  They don't have it right now...and they want it.

Maybe unions will realize that change is good.  They will have to reinvent themselves to remain relevant.  If they don't, then hopefully we the public will realize that the harm they do exceeds the benefits they provide.  That's what happens when you use something that has passed its expiry date.
This post is now up for discussion.


  1. Well said Brandon, I could not agree more.

  2. Exactly, well put. The children are long out of the coal mines.

  3. Anybody from the union side care to join in the discussion?

  4. To be clear, I don't have a union job and am in the private sector. I work for a large corporation, have another personal business, as well as own a clothing franchise with my wife.

    There have been instances in my 12 year career that a union would have prevented a lot of questionable labour practices. Employees were taken advantage of, and they just had to go with the flow because they felt they had no power to question things.

    I feel that we, the public, only hear about union news when they do something stupid (because let's not kid ourselves - they make some terrible decisions sometimes), or there is job action. We never hear about the things they do everyday to protect the employees.

    I believe that unions today just have different challenges than they did 50 years ago. The world continues to evolve and to think that our employers are perfect is not reasonable.

  5. Thanks for joining the conversation Hemant. I don't disagree entirely. Bad management leads to unions. Great companies with solid leadership don't typically have unions...because the employees are already engaged and valued.

    However, where unions are already entrenched and when they just want "more" and aren't willing to negotiate--who's interests are they protecting? Power corrupts--and that's as true in management as it is in unions.

  6. Unions have their place but right now I don't think their place is here (Canada more specifically saskatchewan). But I've never worked in a provice/country without unions around so maybe if they all disappeared I would change my mind about the situation. However I do agree with your comment about them just wanting power in the discussed situation.

  7. The Instructors at SIAST have it pretty good already. They only work 199 days of a 260 day work year, meaning they get 61 days off per year (just over twelve weeks). The average employee gets about five weeks off per year with vacation and statutory holidays.

  8. I'll bite. I am a SIAST employee, an instructor. The problem is that our wages are NOT comparable. Our wages are sadly behind the curve. SIAST has to pay market stipends to about 400 out of 2200 employees. They get higher wages than the rest of us for doing the same job. SIAST's own reports say that hiring and retention is a problem because wages are low compared to other institutions. The universities got a 14% increase in pay, the STF got a 9% increase in pay to address the exact same issues. They are offering us 5.5% plus want money back for parking now. That takes back 1.5% of the wage offer making it 4%.

    Sorry, 4% is below the rate of inflation.

    As for mediation ... we have already gone down that road twice. Twice we have agreed to mediation without strike action. Twice management has put nothing more on the table.

    All of this is a stalling technique now. They want us to give up striking. There is an election coming in early Nov. There is a 60 day rule that says strike action by organizations like us can not begin in that 60 day window. So, That would leave strike action till the middle of the year. Tactically, that does not work, so we leave it till end of April. That would make it 3 years without a contract. Ridiculous.

    Look at the history of bargaining in this round. There has been no bargaining by management. No change in the offer. They have been doing very well in the media, but poorly at the bargaining table.

    Ask yourself ... do you want your college instructors paid less than kindergarten teachers (no disrepect to them) or less than their students will make when they first graduate? Will that attract or keep quality faculty?

    I hear that Kelsey campus has already lost 3 instructors during the strike - they left for jobs in industry because they can get more money there. It will continue to happen if the issue is not addressed. SIAST is losing it's capacity to teach.

  9. Oh, another one. SIAST resorts to threats to get us to accept what they want. From the President, Dr Bob:

    In the interests of reaching an agreement in a timely manner, SIAST’s offer includes a provision affecting retroactivity. As part of the offer, retroactive pay will accrue up to and including February 18, 2011. If a collective agreement is not ratified by that date, further retroactive pay for employees will cease to accrue effective February 19, 2011 onward.

  10. One final one. This is from the email that Dr. Bob sent out when parking fees were introduced. Read carefully:

    "Dear Colleagues:

    In order to help address systemic revenue shortfalls, SIAST has begun making plans to introduce paid parking at all SIAST locations. Paid parking will be implemented in two stages. It will be introduced first for employees on January 1, 2011, and then for students on July 1, 2011.
    Paid parking is one of a number of changes we are implementing as we seek flexibility within our budget to address resource limitations. "

    Parking fees were not introduced to offset expenses. SPMC covers those costs. Parking fees were introduced to increase revenues.

    Now, read that again:

    Dear Colleagues. You are a source of revenue for us.

    Thanks Bob. Nice to be thought of not as a professional, but as a source of revenue.

    That is the way that management thinks of as and has treated the faculty and staff during negotiations. Not as valued employees, but simply as numbers.

    It sucks.

  11. This one seems not to have posted properly:

    In the SIAST Operations Forecast 2010-2013 management acknowledges “ SIAST is not competitive with respect to compensation of its employees, putting at risk its ability to recruit and retain appropriately qualified instructors and professional staff.”

    Recently the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers negotiated a contract for construction electricians in Saskatchewan agreeing to wage increases of more than 15% over four years. SIAST now pays instructors in the electrician program less than the apprentices that they train. Fourth year electrician apprentices earn only 80% of the journeyperson wage. These apprentices working on an industrial job like the refinery expansion in Regina now make $77,760 for a 2000 hour work year. This will rise to $83,720 by May of 2012. SIAST Electrician instructors start at $50,832 per year when employer pension contributions are included. The 'final' offer of 5.5% over three years will not come close to closing the gap with apprentices never mind qualified journeypersons.

  12. Thanks for your input Anonymous (I thank all of you--but I'm responding to the SIAST instructor). For anyone to go without a contract for 2 years is in my mind disrespectful; I certainly don't condone that. Shame on management.

    However, you do somewhat prove my point. Because instructors have options (as your 3 colleagues demonstrated) if they are underpaid and choose to leave then a cascading effect will occur in which class size will increase, class wait times will increase and overall levels of education will decrease as the only teachers remaining will be those unable to find work at higher paying establishments. All of this happening without a union.

    Although, perhaps it was the impetus of "going on strike" that finally catapaulted your colleagues to make that transition. I guess they can thank the union for that...we'll never know.

    Specifically to the offer you bring up. CPI from 2008-2010 is only 5.7% so, really the 5.5% isn't that far off--figure out how to agree on parking, tack on an additional .2% raise and you've got yourselves a deal.

    The problem is when the starting position is 12%...well, as a person in the public, I understand why your union is losing the battle in the media. We all watch the news and know that governments are having to do more with less. When a global recession is looming, striking for "more" just doesn't play well.

    Yes, I want well paid secure teaching positions available. As one commenter above pointed out--it appears those conditions already exist. If not, have your union sit down for mediation and let's see how SIAST stacks up with other Western Canadian institutions. If it's way out of whack, not only will the union have the upper hand, but they will have the support of the public.

    Until that happens, to me it just looks like they want power.

  13. It sounds to me like you think those who teach the professions should make as much or more than the practicing professionals.

    By that rationale, NHL coaches should make as much as the players.

    Yes, many coaches were at one time players. Some were great players and not so great coaches (sorry Wayne)...but, they are no longer players...if they could still play they would...they can't and now they coach.

    To any instructor who wants to be paid like an electrical engineer, I say become an electrical engineer--or consultant--or whatever...but instructors, just like coaches shouldn't expect to make as much as the folks actually doing the work.

  14. I worked at SIAST for quite a few years. I agree with the point that fresh recruits straight out of school shouldn't make more than their instructors.

    The difference between a instructor and a "NHL coach" is the instructors have to be full-fledged "NHL hockey players".. in other words, up-to-date capable journeypersons with significant experience to work as instructors. They have the option of going to industry and many do quit and do. More will, unless the pay is competitive.

    Something that wasn't made clear here is the fact that instructors make much more than the base salary described above...for the most part. If instructors get diploma, degrees, and additional certifications their salaries go up significantly from the base.

    My issue is that the union at SIAST is ridiculously militant and irrational. SIAST has tons of great people...not many of them have any involvement with the union until times like this. The radicals get the rest in a bunch of hot water all the time and often misrepresent what management says and does to "rev up the troops". They did that in 2004 when I was stuck going out on strike against my will. Cost me $2k and we ended up settling for less than the offer that was made pre-strike. NOT BRILLIANT!

    I've got friends on both sides of this. Just hope it's figured out soon.

  15. Thanks for your input. I also have seen that many good people who are content have no option but to strike when the union dictates that is what needs to be done. Maybe folks need to do what the NHLPA did recently and de-certify and then start all over with representation that is actually representative of the majority.