Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Research: Defying expectations: The case of UFCW 401

My colleague Jason Foster has recently published a book entitled Defying expectations: The case of UFCW 401. You can download the book for free at the link above.

This book examines how UFCW 401 (a very scrappy Alberta union) has navigated the past 20 years. The first three chapters provided a good, accessible, and very interesting history of 401. (This was really an enjoyable read.)

The second half of the book examines UFCW’s transformation in light of what we know about union renewal. The academic argument Foster makes is that union renewal can emerge through contingent decision-making. This deviates somewhat from most of the literature on union renewal, which tends to focus on carefully planned renewal efforts.

The book also opens up the internal workings of 401 somewhat, which is unusual. Unions are typically opaque organizations to outsiders (and often insiders!) and this case provides insight into decision-making, power structures, and the inner thinking (or narratives) that emerge from and then drive behaviour.

UFCW operates in a very centralized way and relies heavily on the mystique of and trust in its president. An important question Foster raises is what happens when Doug O’Halloran eventually retires? Will the growing diversity within the union membership trigger a move towards greater internal democracy? Or will we see another strong (wo)man take over?

Reading about 401 is important for a number of reasons. It is one of the few unions (two?) unions that engages in a meaningful level of organizing and it does so among private sector employers who often resist having exploitative employment practices challenged. It is not afraid to strike and, recently, it has been winning strikes. And UFCW is responding (albeit it in mixed ways) to the growing cultural and linguistic diversity among Alberta workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

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