Unions and Workers Play in Promoting a Quality-of-Work Agenda

Work is increasingly the most dominate activity for a person’s life. With this increase in time away from family and other activities for the average person, there is a need to focus on the quality of work and workplaces. Work provides a sense of purpose and a majority of Canadians would continue working even if they had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. (Lowe, 2000, p. 43) Unions and workers can make the workplace better by correctly using, a quality-of-work agenda in the workplace can change attitudes and productivity benefiting both management and workers.

Professor Graham Lowe’s, “The Quality of Work: A People-Centered Agenda,” gives us some insights regarding what is needed to achieve a high quality workplace which is essentially a quality of life issue. Lowe states that each and every generation has concerns about the future quality of work and their concerns are viewed through the lens of their specific fixations and fears. This is not surprising since Lowe points out a connection between public morality and work. (Lowe, 2000, p. 5-28) He argues that worker concerns are becoming shared among broader segments of the population and involve more of health, education and social services issues and not only work issues. (Lowe, 2000, p. 2)

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The fundamental moral and philosophical question of what defines a “good job” is hard to define and rarely do labour analysts even attempt to answer it. The Economic Council of Canada has defined a “good job” as well-paying, secure, and skilled. (Lowe, 2000, p. 3) Canada’s economic climate has seen falling real incomes, rising unemployment and increasingly insecure jobs which is shown in the rise in workers reporting a fear of losing employment from close to 25% in 1990 to around 40% in 1998. (Lowe, 2000, p. 68/36) The need for a living real wage and job security is critical for quality work. The Workplace 2000 survey showed that 86% of workers expressed overall satisfaction with their jobs but two-thirds of these workers reported their jobs were somewhat or very stressful.

Long hours and heavy workloads and the lack of recognition and dysfunctional organizational structures were highlighted problem with 23% reporting their skills being substantially under-used. (Lowe, 2000, p. 55) Workers view “good work” as more than their remuneration but also improved work conditions. In an American study on what workers viewed as desirable in a job, 13 non-monetary factors were found to be twice as important than earnings to workers.

These factors included full time hours, training, not getting dirty at work, vacations, flexible schedule, little direct supervision, unionization, variety in work, public-sector employment, a flat management hierarchy, as well as job security. It was also found that the differences in non-monetary job attributes were twice that found in pay. (Lowe, 2000, p. 66) The 1973 job satisfaction survey showed participants ranking interesting work as the most important priority topping even wages and job security. (Lowe, 2000, p. 53)

What explains the inequality in the non-monetary attributes? It can be explained by the fact that a comparatively small number of features predict the likelihood of these factors appearing in a job. For example, education is a predictor of not only wages but autonomy and authority and public-sector work is accountable to public opinion for their working conditions which provide them with pensions, benefits, and training. Also, many of these characteristics are also much more likely to be found in larger firms rather than small firms. (Lowe, 2000, p. 5-66)

Unions have the ability to gain better wages, benefits and job security due to membership solidarity and their powerful voice and this means that union jobs can see a higher quality of work than non-union jobs. Lowe points to unions focusing more on the economic definitions of quality jobs and he indicates several ways in which unions can fight for better work quality for members. Lowe believes that a key issue for unions to address is the “family-friendly” workplace due to a demographic shift which is including more women in the workplace.

He urges unions to push for additional flexible hour positions while mentioning the issue of, when flexible working arrangements are available, workers tend to put in longer than average hours. (Lowe, 2000, p. 166) Lowe states that unions can use the corporation’s language of family-friendliness to challenge the work hours issue leading to 17% of workers working longer than 40+ hours in a typical week, with over half being unpaid for overtime, even though unemployment and underemployment are increasing. Lowe, 2000, p. 72) While employers have always opposed shorter work weeks due to perceived employee overhead costs, unions should use this option and negotiate tradeoffs like rewarding seniority with more time off rather than more pay. (Lowe, 2000, p. 78) Another issue that unions can focus on is the unbalanced distribution of access to training and work with employers and government to give their members more universal access to gain new skills and therefore new work opportunities.

This will require a shift from youth education to a more open and flexible system providing opportunities to obtain education throughout an employee’s lifetime. This can be accomplished through online learning and virtual classrooms to increase access to education but the downfall is still tuition fees. The organizational culture of valuing ongoing learning should be built into the jobs, structured with in-house training programs or off-site education and training all supported by the corporations. Lowe, 2000, p. 134) Unions have to help organizations view lifelong learning and its inclusion into their organizational plan as critical for employees to feel valued. Unions can have employers provide incentives to upgrade job skill requirements and give workers more latitude to acquire and apply new knowledge in their jobs. To ensure the success of workplace innovation the unions and employer must encourage workers to contribute their new found expertise in all aspects of their daily work. (Lowe, 2000, p. 135)

Lowe shows the possibility of unions being able to negotiate the model of the workplace organization and giving more autonomy and more opportunities for meaningful work to workers. Although, Lowe recognizes that unions traditionally see workplace innovation techniques as an employer’s technique to reduce staff and to gain maximum productivity from remaining staff through “management by stress. ”

As shown by the incident at the Ingersoll CAMI auto plant when, despite initial worker excitement, the plant’s work organization ended up with 98% of their workers striking due to overwork and stressful expectations (Lowe, 2000, p. 63), also the joint Sarnia CEP-Shell chemical plant in Sarnia was promoted as an example of flat hierarchies and self-managing teams but was reorganized by management to more bureaucratic and traditional method of business. (Lowe, 2000, p. 148) Even so, Lowe argues that unions can promote workers’ interests by participating in workplace reorganization to increase, “the possibility of worker consultation, information-sharing, and power redistribution. ” (Lowe, 2000, p. 149)

While negotiating work-hour flexibility, training programs and workplace reorganization are ways that unions can contribute to work quality for Canadian workers and ensure equality of opportunities in the new economy, the continuing challenge of keeping job security and wages intact will continue to be areas where unions cannot afford to give concessions to employers. These quality of work indicators are significant, especially now during an economic crisis, and are critical to keep workers’ quality of life.

In order to be successful, the unions will need to link working conditions, morale and productivity in an increasingly precarious economic climate as a solution to employers and not as another cost. Workers can assist the union in gaining solving important quality of work and quality of life issues by realizing that workplace change can be negotiated and that it doesn’t have to be imposed by management and that worker input is crucial for success.

The collaborative nature of workplace innovation means that employees will have a chance to gain the soft skills to assist in participating in the planning, implementation and monitoring of the changes. Workers will have to realize that there will be trade-offs that will not be advantageous to the workers and accept those changes as a part of creating a quality workplace. (Lowe, 2000, p. 146) Both unions and workers need to see the reality of membership on the ability of the union to assist workers in gaining a quality of work agenda.

With an aging population, the demographic patterns of union membership are changing. That with unionization rates among 15-24 year olds declining from 16% to 13% between 1989 and 1994, there is less of a voice for change now and into the future. (Lowe, 2000, p. 167) Without a strong voice for the needed change, organizations will once again be able to move back to traditional management practices and ignore the voice of the worker.