The changing role of unions: An interview with Ken Neumann of the United Steelworkers

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As its name suggests, United Steelworkers (USW) once represented the legions of steel workers across North America. But as jobs in the steel industry moved to far flung corners of the world, USW began to change, integrating new job sectors into a union that now has over 800,000 members worldwide.

Ken Neumann is the Canadian national director of USW, representing over 200,000 Canadian workers. He's been a member of USW since the late seventies. Labour beat reporter H.G. Watson spoke to him about their potential merger with the Telecommunications Workers Union, and the challenges facing labour today. This is a condensed and edited version of their conversation.

H.G. Watson: We spoke a few weeks ago just after it was announced that the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) was merging with United Steelworkers. At the time you spoke about diversifying the skill sets within your union -- can you tell me why you think that's important?

Ken Neumann: Well the diversification for USW is not something that’s just come about recently. This is going to be the 19th merger if we're successful [TWU's membership still has to approve the proposed merger – H.G. Watson].

If you look like at the makeup of the USW there are a very small percentage of the total membership [that are steelworkers] currently. We are now a huge player in many of the sectors. We recognized some time ago that if we are going to maintain our ability to challenge or take on some of the global companies that we deal with, we're not going to do that by just having our membership contained to [one industry].

You know I became a staffer in 1977, and boy, things are surely different now. You've got a government that is really using the Republican right-wing agenda playbook. What we see happening with the Harper regime is that this is really an attack on the middle class and trade union movement.

HG: Critics argue that unions have to make more concessions now because of the financial crisis, but your peers have countered now is the time for more union militancy, not less.

KN: I've bargained many collective agreements in my day and sometimes we've come up across a company that's come across hard times. And in some of those circumstances, the company would come to the union and say, 'look, we have a problem.' For us as the union we have to look at that. None of that stuff is new.

I recognize that employers need to have return on their investment and in exchange for that we want to make sure that the collective agreement ensures it. But it really comes to the point now where companies are trying to take advantage of the situation.

We take on companies where we think they've dealt unjustly with us. Because we have ability [to do so] we've fashioned our organization to take on some of these global giants that are currently some of the people that we face across the table. 

HW: It sounds like you're going beyond the collective bargaining when it comes to negotiating tactics on behalf of your workers.

KN: We've become much more sophisticated with respect with how we now deal with companies. We've got Crown Holdings that has us on strike here in Ontario -- the strike just started. This is a company where these folks have got the award for being the most productive plant in its facility, [yet Crown Holdings] comes to the bargaining table asking for mass concessions. As we speak we are now engaged in turning up a corporate campaign that's going to go to the United Kingdom and the United States and their board and basically mount pressure. Sometimes walking up and down a struck plant doesn't quite do it these days as it did at one time -- you have to have the ability to have some effect on the board.

HW: At the recent Unifor convention, there was a lot of talk about taking a holistic approach to labour rights, connecting it to issues like health and poverty. Is USW taking the same approach?

KN: Our union has been involved in helping workers in Liberia…we've sent people to Bangladesh to assist in some of those situations.

We have strategic alliances with the Blue Green Alliance. At one time the trade union movement and the environmentalists wouldn't walk on the same side of the street. Today we recognize that we may have some differences with some of the environmental groups and sometimes you can set aside those differences and work on the common issues.

We have to make sure that we reach out to the youth, the women, the aboriginals and the people of colour and that’s what the union really has to focus on.

HW: At the same convention, Naomi Klein's speech on labour unions taking up the challenge of fighting climate change was one of the big moments of the event. What did you think of that?

KN: A lot of our members understand about global warming. We want to leave this world in a place that's good or better than we come. Our children and grandchildren deserve that. I think that’s a responsibility that we share and it’s for that reason that we do have a policy and we continue to work at it and look at it.

HW: I ask because I know that the makeup of USW is quite diverse, but you still have a lot of members in industries that are negatively associated with climate change.

KN: I worked in a steel mill -- it was one of my first jobs off the farm in Saskatchewan. I remember the working conditions and the smog and the smoke. Sometimes you couldn't see the light because there was so much smoke and smog. You go to a steel mill today, it's totally different.

We recognize you just can't continue to have the smoke stack industry that's why you have policies and regulations that make those changes. In each and everyone of those areas we've had some success…we recognize that global warming is something we need to pay attention to.

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