Leadership at the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has always insisted that the well-being of the rank and file is their primary concern.

But the seemingly endless number of cases and stories about delayed pensions, lack of mental health resources, systemic sexual harassment or even tragic, fatal incidences suggest that generals are losing the battle. The piecemeal approach to fixing these issues isn't working. Here's something that might: unionizing the military.

It might seem like a radical idea, but the truth is that much of Canada's security defence community is already unionized, including the police and fire departments, EMS, as well as the uniformed and armed personnel at Canadian Border Service Agency and Canadian Coast Guard. So too is the Communication Security Establishment under the Department of National Defence, as well as certain elements of Canadian Security Intelligence Service. In 2015, the RCMP won the right to unionize, too.

Faster and better treatment

Unionization is about trust and empowerment. It means giving the military rank and file the right, as a group, to self-advocate and negotiate for improved salary, benefits and working conditions within government-approved parameters. It will also give individual members the means to more effectively air their grievances. Invariably, the result will be faster and better treatment when it comes to injuries and disabilities, and it will mean quicker and more efficient remedies when benefits are denied.

On paper, it's true that anyone in the military — from private to general — has the right to initiate a grievance, allegedly without fear of reprisal. In reality, it's not so straightforward. Consider how a 19-year-old female private might feel, for example, individually filing a formal complaint of workplace harassment compared to, say, a 50-year-old colonel grieving the terms of his employment. It is simply not enough to say that all military personnel has the right to make a complaint if there are no corresponding guarantees of equality in representation, immune to influence of the strict military hierarchy.

Now, before a dystopian mirage of slovenly soldiers refusing orders preempts this debate, it's important to outline what a unionized military does not mean: unionization does not mean challenging the operational commitments of the military, nor does it give service members the right to refuse a lawful order. It will not pacify our military, and the standard commands of "fall-in," "advance," "fire" and "halt" will not be subject to pre-approval by the union. Unionized militaries of NATO countries such as Germany, Norway and the Netherlands don't operate like that, and ours won't either.

Like its sister services in the defence security community, a unionized Canadian military — for obvious reasons — will not have the legal option to withdraw services and go on strike. Nor would it be locked out if contract negotiations reach an impasse. Instead, much like our police and fire services, it would have the options of mediation or binding arbitration to settle any contract disputes.

A more educated military

The incentive to unionize the military is particularly important given the prospect of looming personnel shortages, wherein Western militaries — including Canada's — will find it increasingly difficult to meet the growing demand for highly skilled and educated men and women to fill its ranks. The days when high school dropouts could easily find career options throughout the Forces have long since passed, meaning our ranks are now filled with increasingly high-skilled and educated men and women. Can we really continue to delude ourselves into thinking they are not capable or deserving of their own to organization to advocate for their workplace and careers?

The old ways of trying to fix the military aren't working. It's time to try something new. A unionized military will ultimately mean our Forces will be better supported, which — for the men and women who protect our rights and freedoms — is something that is long overdue.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.