Who is advocating for employees?


Back in the 50’s through to the 70’s, the general workforce had steady jobs, benefits, and decent pensions. During this period, the union movement–especially in the private sector–was very strong and their influence was significant. It wasn’t unusual for gains made in the collective bargaining process for unionized staff to make their way into the terms and conditions for non-unionized staff and management ranks.

Since then with the rise of business friendly governments at all levels, the union movement has come under attack. Suddenly it has become accepted dogma that unions are bad for business. In the interest of competitiveness, society has bought into this idea and it has reduced union influence in creating good working conditions for all members of the workforce.

Both in the USA and Canada, the unionization rate has declined considerably in the private sector. In Canada, the unionization numbers overall look healthier because the public service sector remains highly unionized. Healthcare, education and municipal workers have very good working conditions and in large part it is because they are unionized.

Statistics show that unionized employees’ wages and benefits are considerably better than that of non-unionized employees. This demonstrates that unions can improve the working and personal lives of people. Businesses and governments have felt that the only way for them to remain competitive and cost effective is to confront the strength of unions and reduce the terms and conditions that unions fought so hard for. This has been done without regard for the impact this will have on the personal well being of their workforces, and ultimately on society and the economy as a whole when people’s spending power is reduced.

Hardnosed bargaining, back to work legislation, and zero wage increases have been going on for well over 6 years in most jurisdictions. As a result, the push has been to create a race to the bottom– that is, to reduce the wages and benefits for these employees–instead of striving to have other sectors and employers strive to achieve their level of compensation thereby enhancing the well being and spending power of all.

There is currently an ongoing discussion on income inequality; a lack of employer sponsored benefits; a workforce that is not saving for retirement; precarious jobs, and employers that notwithstanding sound profits are laying off workers by the thousands. Just today, CPR announced 1,000 lay-offs notwithstanding sound profits. It is as if the reward to employees for a company’s profitability is losing their jobs. Banks earlier this year announced job losses even though their profits are in the billions of dollars.

Organizations, notwithstanding their pronouncement about “people being their most important resource,” often don’t really mean it. The evidence shows that the first action they take whenever they need to solve an operational problem, or increase profits, is to cut back on workers either through layoffs or reduction in wages and benefits and by creating precarious work.

Unless unionization increases significantly in the near future, employees are at the mercy of the employers without anyone looking after their interests. Prime Minister Trudeau has been quoted from an interview last summer as saying “Canadians need to know that unions matter. They need to know that unions are essential in the fight for fair wages. Canadians need a government, which instead of attacking unions, works with them to ensure that every Canadian has a real and fair chance at success.”

If the government succeeds in changing the negative perception of unions the answer to my question “who is advocating for employees” will once again be “the unions”. More workplaces will organize and the situation for its employees will improve. At best this is a long term solution.

In Ontario the government is now reviewing the Employment Standards Act (ESA) with the objective of modernizing it. While this is welcome it won’t solve the problem of creating fairness in the workplace. As evidence of this, MOL has released the findings of its latest inspection blitz and found that two-thirds of employers were found in violation of the act with hours of work, overtime and vacation leave being the most common. Employers were given insignificant fines which do not act as either a deterrent or encouragement in obeying the ESA. Nor is there any significant process to educate workers on their rights in the workplace.

This leads me to the question; why haven’t HR professionals taken up the task of ensuring that employees are well treated just like the Accounting professionals ensure that every financial transaction meets accounting principles? Or, like the IT professionals ensure that the investment in hardware and software is maintained and up-to-date. These professions look after their field well because it is critical to the success of the company they work for.

As stated by Richard Branson, “Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” So why have HR professionals not sought and received the authority to take care of the employees? If they had that authority and were obliged to exercise it then perhaps everyone would not have stood by when people in powerful positions took advantage of their staff (CBC and the Canadian Olympic Committee). ESA inspections would not show two-thirds of companies with violations, and noncompliance would not be an acceptable practice until they are caught. And perhaps knee jerk reactions to any financial problem would not be to cut back, reduce staff or otherwise diminish the value of the workers contribution to the success of the organization.

I strongly urge all HR professionals to seek this authority and for the sake of competitiveness, and successful organizations, let HR be the ones who advocate for employees.

Pesce & Associates has experience and expertise in helping organizations deliver exceptional results and in strengthening employee performance and commitment to achieving organizational strategic goals and corporate objectives. For further information on the full range of human resources consulting services offered by Pesce & Associates, please visit our website at http://www.pesceassociates.com or call Angelo Pesce at 416-491-1501 extension 22.

Angelo Pesce
Managing Partner
January 2016