To unionize or not to unionize, that is the question
January 5, 2010
January 5, 2010
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
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. All posts by Harry Rudolfs