3390 2006 class presentation comments 1

Issues arising from the group class presentations.
The group class presentations have been of a very good standard with grades ranging
from B+ to A+. These promise much for a high standard in the group term papers. Please
feel free to refer to information or insight obtained by you from the presentations. Just be
sure to credit it to the group that provided it.
Professional unions
So far, three of the presentations have involved of the “craft” union type, though they are
referred to nowadays as “professional” unions or associations. The AUPE, while not a
craft/professional union in the traditional sense, represents a range of professional
workers such as social workers, teachers, nurses and others. As with the craft unions of
the 19th Century, these unions place great emphasis on their members’ expertise and their
duty to protect the skills and standards of the craft or profession. As such skills are
subject to change, it is important for members of the profession to constantly develop
their practices. For example, research on diversity in how different people learn and on
learning disabilities can be addressed are important issues for members of the profession.
The ghost at the bargaining table
An issue relevant to each union in the presentations is “the ghost at the bargaining table”
that is government. Governments fund public education, health, social work etc. but do
not always bargain directly with the unions representing professional workers or nonprofessionals working for institutions created by statute to provide the services funded by
taxpayers. The problem is that, as such employers rely on government(s) for their budget,
they may be unable to meet the demands of their workers without obtaining more funding
from government. Typically, the union does not engage in bargaining with the ghost at
the bargaining table, where the real power lies, at least regarding funding.
A key function of unions is to assist in the decentralization of power. In bureaucracies
power tends to be exercised from the top or the centre of the organization. This is of
particular importance in professional workplace settings, because the experience and
knowledge gained and applied by workers at the periphery (away from the top or centre)
is important for the development of policy, and work methods, standards, and conditions.
In spite of the vital nature of knowledge acquired at the periphery, there is frequently
conflict over whose knowledge should prevail. Government and the bodies created by
them have the power of legitimacy and the traditional doctrine of “management rights”.
Yet employees, in this case professional employees, have power that resides in
knowledge that is not easily acquired by those at the top or centre of the organization.
While a superintendent of school district will likely have been a teacher and a local
school administrator, his or her knowledge acquired in the past can become quickly
obsolete, or be subject to challenge by new knowledge, ideas and environmental
conditions acquired by professionals working at the periphery. Each of the presentations
suggested to me that there remain challenges in developing systems and a culture
conducive to synthesizing or reconciling successfully the different knowledge, needs and
perspectives of persons at different levels of the bureaucracies.
Perhaps one stumbling block is that unions themselves are usually bureaucracies with
their core and their periphery. Another may be a culture that retains the mindset that topdown organizations work most efficiently and that the perspectives of those at the top or
core have greater validity that those at the periphery. Such a view seems obsolete
particularly in our era, where communication is supposedly held in great esteem. Without
effective communication to and from the core and the periphery, organizations are likely
to be considerably less successful and effective. Yet we continue to legitimize
bureaucratic structures and cultures, where knowledge is frequently withheld rather than
shared by those at the core (and by those at the periphery). While this raises the question
of how to improve communication between the core and the periphery of organizations, it
also raises the question of whether bureaucratic structures and culture are themselves a
significant part of the problem of communication.
Furthermore, improving communication does not necessarily resolve organizational
problems arising from inequality of power within the organization. Successful social
interaction appears to depend on negotiation to resolve conflict. However, if power is
greatly imbalanced, the danger is that negotiation is replace by coercion, and the
generally negative effects of reaction to coercion. It is not clear that unions in the
industries considered in the presentations are well equipped to meet the challenges of
improving the power and communication of those at the periphery of their respective
In three of the four presentations, the respective unions have no right to strike. The right
to strike in the private sector, while a last resort, is recognized as an important tool for
unions to persuade employers to bargain in good faith. While compulsory arbitration in
the event of a bargaining impasse is viewed by some as an effective alternative to the
right to strike, it comes with some problems. It is easy for the parties to become addicted
to arbitration and stop engaging in bargaining. This not only risks awards detrimental to
each party but may undermine the entire purpose of the Canadian labour relations system
– the settlement of disputes by the give and take of negotiations.
It will be a useful exercise to consider whether deprivation of the right to strike to a class
of workers deemed essential is good public policy. If it is law designed to limit union
power in such industries, we must consider whetherin this era we should be strengthening
the power of those at the periphery, rather than weaken it.
My thanks congratulations to the skill and care of the groups who presented and to those
who engaged in the important process of question and answer.