Exploring labour at the crossroads

The Glendon Research Group in Public and International Affairs hosted a symposium on Feb. 2 to explore the historical context and the future prospects of labour and unions in Canada, the US and Britain. The symposium was organized under the leadership of Ian Roberge, professor of political science at York’s Glendon campus with assistance from members of the Glendon Student Economic Society.

Three panelists participated in the symposium, exploring the varying aspects and geographic locations of unionism. Professor Geoffrey Ewen, who teaches Canadian Studies at Glendon, provided a historical overview of unions in Canada. He touched on the influence of European Catholicism in the early part of the 20th century, with special attention to this process in Quebec. Ewen outlined the main issues addressed by unions, such as a fair wages, the right to strike and the need for positive relationships between workers and employers.

The second panelist was Alex Bryson, Wertheim Fellow at Harvard Law School and based at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass. Bryson is a specialist in the evaluation of welfare-to-work programs and industrial relations, as well as editor of the British Journal of Industrial Relations since 2005.

Bryson focused on the current state of British unions and their general decline in the public sector. His presentation of the employer’s perspective added useful dimensions to the discussion. “Unions are favoured when they improve workplace financial performance,” said Bryson, “or when proven to be effective voices for employees.” Bryson explored the notion of “unionship market share” and commented that unions are currently surviving on their assets and investments or, in his words, “the old family silver”.

The third panelist, Professor Rafael Gomez of Glendon’s Economics Department offered definitions for “attitudes” versus “values” within the context of labour unions. Gomez also explored a number of intriguing conundrums emerging from the work of the late Professor Noah Meltz of the University of Toronto, a specialist on unionization in Canada and the US. Gomez discussed the link between religion and unions and introduced the concept of unions as “experience goods”, i.e. that experiencing membership in a union is necessary before being able to assess its true value.

The Glendon Research Group (GRG) in Public and International Affairs is dedicated to fostering Glendon students’ interest and depth of knowledge in the field of public affairs. The GRG is also working to promote distinctive research within Glendon through a comparative perspective on public affairs, with diversity in approach and focus. The research group continues to examine crucial issues within this sphere, both at the theoretical and the practical levels. It thus strives to fulfill Glendon’s original mandate of developing a deep understanding of public affairs among its students.

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny, in collaboration with Nicole Hylmar, a fourth-year economics student and co-president of the Glendon Student Economics Society.