Time for unions to rethink strategy

Ken Lewenza, CAW National President in the green and CAW Oshawa President Chris Buckley at the...

Ken Lewenza, CAW National President in the green and CAW Oshawa President Chris Buckley at the Sheridan Centre on Queen in Toronto on Sept. 16. (Dave Thomas/QMI Agency)

Pat Bolland, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:06 PM ET

You gotta love Ken Lewenza; he comes out swinging every time.

Fresh off the vote for the merger of the CAW and CEP, the head of the Canadian Auto Workers starts shooting from the hip at the "unrepresentative, unfair economic and political systems workers now find themselves caught in."

It would seem 190,000 CAW members are now being dragged into a fistfight with everyone and anyone it would seem.

This sort of positioning is, quite frankly, un-Canadian. Canadians are not at their core confrontational - they get along, and the world loves us for it. Oh we'll fight, and two world wars and numerous other political mix-ups have proven that, but we're best known as liberators and peacekeepers.

Ken may see himself as a liberator or feel that his back is up against a wall and that he has to fight back. But liberate from what? What wall?

In their infancy, unions were critical to ensuring that fair compensation was enforced in the workplace. Universal health care, gender rights and retirement benefits, all part of Canada's social safety net, all owe their existence, at least in part, to collective bargaining by unions.

The problem now is that the pendulum has swung too far. Broad-based benefits and prosperity have come smack-dab up against global competitiveness.

Emerging countries have entered the arena, competing for their share of the economic pie. They have cheaper labour and flexible workforces.

Here's the rub; foreign companies that invest in Canada know that the social safety net is there. It's a backstop to their hiring strategy. Why offer health care if it's already provided by government? They let workers determine and plan their own retirements without burdening the company with that. And they are creating jobs.

The position that the union movement should be taking is to work with the system, not against it. But how do you align private-sector union interests, especially those aimed at keeping jobs and increasing benefits, with corporate interests?

The answer is quite simple: unions need to bargain for profit-sharing and equity. That means that unions need to present themselves as involved stakeholders.

They can do that by providing a helpful and stable environment for management to do their thing. They can offer to sit on corporate boards to help direct corporate strategy.

Ken may think that 'might is right' and that putting two big unions together increases their bargaining position, but he's barking up the wrong tree. It's not bargaining that's at issue, it's co-operation. And smaller unions are often more adept at working with management, not against it.

Ken has been in the headlines of late as the CAW negotiates with the car companies. Back in the mid '80s, the CAW split from its American counterpart the UAW. One of the issues: the UAW turned to profit-sharing.

In the recent auto crisis the UAW again took the equity route. Guess what ... as the auto industry recovered, they made money.

Time to rethink unions, it just makes good business sense.

Pat Bolland hosts AM Agenda with Alex Pierson on Sun News Network.