To unionize or not to unionize, that is the question

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Really, I can’t think of a topic that’s more polarizing to the trucking community. And I should start by declaring my bias: working truck driver and IBT member as well as a freelance writer. In a past incarnation, I used to joke that I paid union dues to Jimmy Hoffa Jr., wrote copy for Conrad Black, and hauled sliced bread for Gaelen Weston. These days I’m just a peon in the Purolator linehaul network and I’ve never been politically active with any union or local. So the following is my opinion and doesn’t represent anyone or anything. My brief survey of a few Challenger drivers below is unscientific and anecdotal in nature.
But Teamsters Canada president Bob Bouvier’s vow to organize Callenger Motor Freight of Cambridge, Ont. might have less substance than his strident press release would have you believe. True, Challenger is in expansion mode and possibly some drivers are being courted by Teamsters, but the unionization process is never easy and this is a tight company with some very loyal employees.
My job puts me in contact with a variety of Challenger drivers almost daily and I’m always happy to ask them what they think. Everyone of them has heard about the Teamsters initiative, and the response varies from mild interest to disparaging comments.
“A union like that is only good for lazy drivers,” one Quebec driver told me. Well, not exactly, but a union environment makes it very difficult to fire drivers, and family companies faced with the prospect of a unionized work force are loathe to give up control of personnel issues.
The other side of the coin is that carriers paying top dollar don’t have any trouble finding good drivers. Ideally, the lead hand system allows work to carry on without the presence of management. The drivers are supposed to be the best and most capable and should know what doors to fill, what runs have to go, etc., without the presence of a supervisor.
Another Challenger company driver, a former Teamster, told me he liked the job, but thought the base rate was a little low. Another man, a newly hired owner operator from the west coast told me he liked all the extras, free showers, laundry, etc. He added that his recruiter was incredibly attentive to him whenever he called in.
Stats Canada figures indicate that unionized drivers make a bit more than non-union drivers and work slightly less hours. From my perspective, after working for driver services and random carriers, I went gunning for the best paying jobs and they were usually union fleets.
But every month $61 from my paycheque goes to the IBT (I’d be curious to know how much stays in Canada and how much goes to the head office in Washington). Make no mistake, Teamsters are a big corporate union and historically have been able to get a good rate for their members. But it’s not the only union model in Canada. If I remember correctly, roughly just under 20% of truck drivers are represented by a union in Canada. Besides IBT, Steelworkers, CAW, UFCW and Chemical Electrical and Paperworkers all have a trucking component as part of their membership.
No company welcomes unionization: it’s too much trouble, it will reduce profits, they’ll ask for too much, they’ll be too strong and shut the plant down in the event of a dispute. But there are potential benefits to a union model. A collective agreement spells out exactly the duties and responsibilities of employees and management. And although the grievance system my be time-consuming, once a company gets to a certain size, it helps to have a standard disciplinary protocol in place. After a labour board ruling a few years back, Mackie Moving Systems of Oshawa, Ont. was organized by Teamsters local 938 and, unofficially, I don’t think the process was particularly painful for either party.
Are drivers better off in a union? From my perspective. yes, but only very slightly and it really depends upon your situation. Some owner operators would never consider working for a union while others don’t have any problem with a collective agreement. The Challenger drivers I talked to weren’t exactly hopping out of their trucks to sign a union card

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Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.

With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude.

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  • Are YRC drivers better off than non-union drivers ? Despite taking pay cuts and giving up benefits they are still facing the loss of their jobs if YRC goes bankrupt . Will they find jobs with nonunion carriers ? What nonunion carrier will hire a former union worker when the CDL mills in the states are turning out more and more desperate applicants who will work for any wage . Last year an average of 9,000 job were lost per month in the U.S. trucking industry . There are tens of thousands of unemployed drivers competing for jobs .
    Remember DHL in the U.S. ? In January 2008 DHL management said pulling out of the U.S. market was out of the question . A few months later DHL workers ratified a Teamster contract calling for over $8 an hour wage increases over the terms of the contract . DHL decided staying in the U.S. market was out of the question and those union workers were out of jobs by the year’s end although they were still dues paying Teamsters whether they had a job or not .
    Every Teamster strike I have known of in the past couple of years ends with the workers going back with no gains . A key issue is the Central States Pension Fund . It’s in critical condition . UPS and Waste Management stood firm and pulled out of it , refusing to contribute to a losing fund . Anyone thinking of joining or staying in a union should check the state of the pension fund to see if there will be anything there for them when they retire .
    Those of you tired of the everchanging U.S. Hours Of Service hve the IBT to thank for a new review of the HOS . The IBT has fought the current rules . They contributed $5,000 or more to several key Democrats 2008 campaigns , including Senator Frank Lautenberg from NJ who pushed the hardest for FMCSA to agree to review the HOS .

  • I have been in a manufacturing and a retail union. They restricted my job advancement and put a ceiling on my wages. One company went out of business and the other kicked out the union.
    I will not work for a union at all. It restricts job advancement for the hard working people who deserve it. In the trucking industry it will add to the company’s deficit due to securing employment for high risk drivers.The cost of a union on a company could be enough to cause it to go bankrupt due to the loss of control to reprimand those drivers that are costly to the company.
    The unions will not create job security.Unions will not control your dispatch which essentially determines your paychecks.The unions will not make the company treat you with any more respect than they do now.
    The recession has already eliminated a lot of trucking companies. Now what, bring in the unions to finish off the trucking companies that are left.
    Say NO to trucking unions and create your own job security.

  • I would like to take a minute to address a few comments made in regard to the benefits of unions that you mention in your artical. Frist, in regards to pay, you mention that union drivers earn more money. That may be true over-all, but there are non-union carriers out there that pay better, treat their employee’s better, and provide more stability. One common mith with unions is “they will get us more money, or better job securtiy”. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, unions can negotiate contracts but a company doesn’t have to agree to the terms, including pay increases. Nor do companies have to stay in business, so there goes the stability. One major problem with unions is how they protect employees that truly don’t care about the success of the company they work for, they feel a sense of entitlement. I see these drivers sleeping for hours behind factories, hiding from their dispatchers, blaming long wait times at customers. Though I am certain it is not the aim of the union to protect these people, it is a bi product that can not be over looked. If I, as a company, have to pay two / three drivers to do one man’s work, it’s not surprising if I run into finanical difficulty. The biggest problem is the union recruiters use this as their selling point. I recall years back I was approached by a union recruiter in his attempt to unionize the carrier I was working for, he asked if I had time to speak to him, I responded “No I have alot of work to do…”. His exact words to me were “if I reprensented you, you would not need to work hard”. Shocked I walked away thinking if he represented me I wouldn’t have a job anymore… One only needs to look into the current financial stability of YRC or the recent past when CF exited the market. I believe unions did great things in the past to make the lives of many better, but I also beleive they have created as much bad as good. It’s my opinion that employee’s make their own destiny, work hard to make a company profitable and you will get stability and better pay. Same holds true for companies, pay your drivers well and treat them with respect and you never have to worry about unions taking over…

  • This could be wrong but if your carrier uses two or more
    driver sevices and has no drivers on its own company
    pay roll, what good is it to unionize the driver service?
    They (the company) is under no obligtion to use that
    driver service. Thats one reason that driver services
    came into being.Are Challanger drivers company employee,s
    or driver service drivers?

  • I knew this was a hot button topic and I’d like to respond to a few of the comments. I completely agree–joining a union is no assurance of job security. Right now it looks like a question of when, not if, YRC will collapse, which will lead to a big shakeup. Unless it gets massive aid from the US gov’t (anybody remember the Trudeau government giving $36 million to Maislin Transport and letting a good company like Massey Ferguson flounder?) but in all likelihood it will never be what it once was, that style of LTL has gone out of fashion and those employees are caught between the rubber and the road. Don’t worry though, even with the CDL mills, there’s another driver shortage coming as soon as the economy gets on track, and as more boomers hang up their keys in the next few years.
    And yes, there are better jobs than union ones that pay better and treat you like a king or queen; if you find one never let it go…unions can be problematic in so many ways and I don’t need to list them. My point was that statistically and overall economically, drivers are better off being unionized. I suppose another question you can ask of a prospective employer is, will this company be around long enough to pay me the big bucks? Lastly, to respond to Meslippery, I don’t know if Challenger uses driver services.

  • Do you prefer Ford or Chevrolet?
    I’ve owned both more than once and the only thing that matters to me now is – “which one fits my criteria best at the time of purchase”
    Had it not been for Henry Ford creating the automobile assembly line, many folks would have not been able to afford an automobile in those early days and the world would most certainly be a much different place today.
    Like Henry Ford, we “all” owe Unions a debt of gratitude for setting the bar and we don’t need to be a Union member to recognize that the roll they have played has made it possible for us to make a reasonable return on investment;
    Union or not, we all benefit.

  • “Like Henry Ford, we “all” owe Unions a debt of gratitude for setting the bar and we don’t need to be a Union member to recognize that the roll they have played has made it possible for us to make a reasonable return on investment;
    Union or not, we all benefit.
    Posted by: Larry James Hall | January 12, 2010 05:05 PM ”
    Exactly. While a union may not benefit Challenger specifically, it can’t help but improve wages and benefits for all Canadian drivers if such a large Canadian company were to go union.
    To answer meslippery’s question, at least some (probably most) of Challenger’s drivers are company employees, not driver service.

  • The more time we have to take off is more time to
    get into trouble.
    Just thinking about your recent (Dance with me Trucker)

  • Great comments one and all.
    The only input I have is a spinoff from Mel Gibson’s film “Patriot”. On the debate of whether the US should succeed from Britain he said. “Why would I exchange one tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile away”. I say of unions… “Why exchange one form of tyrany for another?”
    Once again excellent dialogues! Thank you Mr. Rudolfs!

  • FYI:
    -Up to 75% of your dues will be reimbursed by the government
    – The campaign is not just about money but also about RESPECT
    – Challenger workers don’t have a pension plan. We think they deserve better
    – Seniority has to be recognized
    – Switching time and inspection should be paid by the company
    In brief, I think joining the Teamsters is VERY profitable for workers, especially Challenger workers…

  • how do the teamsters defend the ever shrinking numbers of union members in trucking. Why did the auto company releasing yards that were teamsters for years decertify and join the CAW.
    Maybe the corruption and ripoffs of teamsters on their members. I remember the sean floyd kickback scheme, the ray bartolotti million dollar pension plan. How he hired a convicted felon in sean floyd and wasted hard working members money in order to line his own pockets.
    The teamster legacy is that they take care of themselves and not their members.
    if people knew how teamsters worked they would be hard pressed to ever organize another member or prospective member.

  • I graduated in 2003 from a CDL school paid by the US govt. I remained as a limo driver until late 2005. I was hired in 2005 by a large US OTR company as a trainee and remained for three years ,with a few months breather which I spent at an even bigger company. If you think these giants care at all about the company or independent driver ,please take a closer look and pray to the God of your understanding nothing harsh out there on the road ever happens to you. I do not need to inject myself at this time into the story,but I will say this if we as truckers do not hang together we will hang separately. Human nature is what it is ,if any of us had our way in an immature sense we would want all of the cookies in the jar. A female actress once said “no one can have it all” we surely can’t and neither can those who own the means of production. We do not need gangsters to represent us ,we need honest God fearing men who believe as I do in Pope John xxiii admonition to management and labor to do an honest days work for an honest days pay. Please reflect silently on what I have just written and ultimately make your decision on organizing as if your life depended upon it ,because it does.( BSOT ) Be safe out there. Jimmy G

  • Companies like non union labor , cost of living goes up they don’t have to give you a dime wait time you get nothing which is all time lost with the family that you’re never gonna get back and some companies the money you contribute to benefits is way more than the union dues that you pay every month your time is important too and you should get paid for it but if they paid the drivers well who cares about a union , a honest days wage for a honest days work but it seems like they want you to do all the work while they keep most of the wages