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A Glendon Symposium on Labour at the Crossroads - The Past and Future of Canadian, U.S. and British Unions


The Glendon Research Group (GRG) in Public and International Affairs hosted a symposium on February 2nd , exploring the historical context and the future prospects of labour and unions in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain. Under the leadership of Glendon political science professor Ian Roberge, who is also the coordinator of Glendon’s Bilingual Certificate in Public Administration and Public Policy, the symposium’s success was greatly assisted by members of the Glendon Student Economic Society.

Three panelists participated in the debate, exploring varying aspects and geographic locations of unionism. Glendon professor of Canadian studies Geoffrey Ewen 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, Alex Bryson is currently the Wertheim Fellow at Harvard Law School, and is based at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 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 also 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 United States, former President of the Canadian Industrial Relations Association (CIRA), and past Director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Industrial Relations. 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 to 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. The GRG in Public and International Affairs thus strives to fulfill Glendon’s original mandate of developing a deep understanding of public affairs among its students.

This article was submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny, in collaboration with 4th-year economics student and co-president of the Glendon Student Economics Society, Nicole Hylmar.

Published on February 13, 2006