The puzzle of the union

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The Publishers’ Page  – In my working life, I have belonged to a union three times. I have been a card-carrying member of the United Auto Workers Union, the Guild of Newspaper Workers and the Brotherhood of Teamsters. I should mention that I did not have a choice in joining these unions, it was a prerequisite of the job I had in each case. I also made good money for what I did and I knew it was negotiated for me by the union. So I did not complain.

I am of two minds when it comes to unions. I have an appreciation for what they have done in terms of the wages and benefits they have secured for their members. I think there was a time that there was an urgent need for them to stop large employers from taking liberties with the lives of their workers. Unions were instrumental in stopping child labour practices in North America and for that alone I am grateful that they were created.
They have also made certain that employees are not forgotten if they get sick or are unable to work. They have made sure that there are plans in place to look after their families. Large corporations would probably never have thought to provide this kind of benevolence had it not been for unions.
But I am troubled by the excess of wages that they now demand. For example, a labourer who is not in a union but does the same sort of work as a labourer who is in a union often receives far less in pay and benefits. I have heard of occasions when an employer has had to shut down operations as a result of high demands by a union. It is alleged that this is what happened when the Toronto Telegram newspaper closed down. And yes, I was working for the Tely at the time.
Many times I have heard young people beginning their working careers say, “Well, if I can get into the union, I should be all right.”
I am troubled that while unions welcome and even aggressively recruit new members when they are first organizing, the door may be closed for those who would like to join an established organization or seek a job in a company that is already unionized.
A few years ago, General Motors announced that it “may” be hiring in Scarborough, Ont. The line up of people who applied for these “maybe” jobs was over a kilometer long. I saw a lot of hopeful faces in the newspaper photos but I didn’t see anybody from the union among those folks recruiting or helping. Some might conclude that they weren’t there because they didn’t need these poor folks in the line up. They already had everyone inside.
Why is it that getting into the union is sometimes harder than getting a job for some people? That isn’t looking out for the common worker. Union members have in some cases become the elite of our society. Isn’t it ironic that elite society is what unions were fighting years ago?
So I have a conundrum as I watch the progress of the latest union drive for Realtors in Canada. There are some compelling reasons to join the union.
I am not a Realtor. But like most Realtors I am an entrepreneur. I enjoy the benefits of being responsible for my time. I like being on my own. The risk of what I do is invigorating. It’s all up to me whether I make money or not.
I like delivering services my way, the best way I can. Not the corporate way or within company rules or within union rules.
But every Realtor knows, as I do, the risk of being an entrepreneur is also frightening. On any given month I could be unemployed. I could lose it all in a moment. And there are no benefits, pension plans or corporate assistance programs available to the entrepreneur. At my age, with small children, I confess that there are nights, more now than when I was young, that I do not sleep for worry about this risk.
During those nights, I wish there was a union for entrepreneurs. I wish there was a union for publishers of real estate industry newspapers. But I can’t see how that could possibly be reality. It is not how the business of the entrepreneur works. By the nature of what I do, I can’t work within a structure of rules anybody lays down for me. Not a corporation’s and not a union’s either.
So this whole union thing, for some Realtors, may be a heart-wrenching process to review.
The way I see it, much of it comes down to one puzzle that I cannot solve. The current drive to recruit Realtors into a union declares unequivocally that if a Realtor joins the union, he or she will be part of a group that will set a firm rate for commissions they earn for the work they do.
For some Realtors, who have become frustrated by competitors who cut commissions for the sake of getting work, this a good thing. This is a fair work solution. It levels the playing field.
But Realtors, at least most Realtors in Canada, already belong to a group that represents them, the Canadian Real Estate Association. It is my understanding that CREA is restricted by the Competition Act from setting a commission rate for their members’ work. It is my understanding that CREA cannot even recommend a commission rate for work without breaking the law.
So how is it that the union can do that?
The bigger question is, do Realtors really want to work with a firm rate of commission? Wouldn’t that take away from the entrepreneurial spirit of the work that a Realtor does?
I shall continue to watch the union drive with interest.

Heino Molls is publisher of REM. Email [email protected]

 
 
 
By: Heino Molls
[email protected]
  

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