Future union strength will depend on new approaches

Does hope for a union renaissance lie with women, new Canadians, self-employed and youth?

By Kirk Winter

"While we take pride in the fact that Canada’s union density is higher than ... the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and the United States there is so much more that can be done ... to increase our unionization rates.”


From the end of the Second World War until the turn of the new century, the towns and villages that would soon make up Kawartha Lakes were home to thousands of unionized workers whose full-time jobs provided a living wage and benefits offering those people a place in the Canadian middle class.

In the private sector, good union jobs could be had at General Electric or OMC in Peterborough, General Motors in Oshawa or Fleetwood, ABEX, Viskase and Armada in Lindsay. If those positions weren’t to your liking, unionized public sector jobs that offered long-term security and some of the best managed pension plans in the industrialized world awaited at the Victoria County Board of Education, Sir Sandford Fleming College, Ross Memorial Hospital or the town of Lindsay.

New subdivisions in Lindsay’s east ward, Janetville, Pontypool, Bethany and Dunsford were built to accommodate this burgeoning unionized middle class, their well-tended bungalows signalling success for the baby boom generation.

A scant 30 years later, the unionized landscape of Kawartha Lakes has changed radically along with that of the rest of the industrialized world. While unionized positions can still be found in the public sector, the unionized private sector has been hollowed out in the industrialized West by free trade deals that rubber-stamp the export of jobs to whatever nation is prepared to pay its workers the least, globalization of markets, automation, policy reforms and the general decline of the manufacturing sector across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which includes most of the richest nations in the world.

Where is the union movement today? Are unions still relevant? How are unions coping with these seismic and rapid changes? Can unions reinvent themselves to help workers, particularly in the service industries, who need their help more than ever?

Unions are working hard to answer these questions in 2022, realizing if they fail they risk irrelevance in an economy that is being buffeted by a once-in-a-century public health crisis.

Declining numbers

Despite a proven track record of delivering minimum wages for work, overtime pay, workplace safety standards, maternity and parental leave, vacation pay and protection from discrimination and harassment in the workplace, unions are in trouble wherever one looks.

Apart from a few outliers like Iceland and Sweden, the rate of union membership is dropping in almost every developed nation in the world. OECD research reports that between 1985 and 2020, the number of unionized workers in their member countries, including Canada, has dropped from 45 per cent of working-age adults to only 32 per cent.

According to Statistics Canada, the rate of unionization in Canada dropped from 38 per cent in 1981 to 29 per cent in 2014. OECD data indicate that the decline has continued, with 27 per cent of Canadians paying dues in 2020, meaning only four million Canadians carry union cards.

If organized labour in Canada can take any solace it may be in the fact that the decline has slowed in the last decade, and that losses in the private sector are almost balanced by gains being made by public sector unions.

In 2020, almost 78 per cent of Canadian public sector employee — led by teachers, health care workers and federal, provincial and municipal employees —were unionized, up slightly from 2016. During the same period, union membership in the private sector has dropped from 16.1 per cent to 15.8 per cent, despite the best efforts of the Canadian Labour Congress, the umbrella group that represents trade union interests across Canada.

In the private sector, transportation and warehouse workers led the pack with 39 per cent in union-recognized workplaces. The manufacturing sector, which once provided organized labour in Canada the bulk of its membership, has only 24 per cent of their workers belonging to unions.

“Canada’s union density compares favourably to most G7 nations,” Michael Hurley, national communications representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers, told the Advocate in an email, “but we lag behind Nordic countries like Iceland and Sweden, where the vast majority of workers are unionized. While we take pride in the fact that Canada’s union density is higher than … the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and the United States there is so much more that can be done … to increase our unionization rates.”

The unions restructure

Professor Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future of Work, notes that when workers have the collective means of workplace advocacy, important economic and social outcomes such as higher wages, greater social stability and a more viable middle class for working peoples can be achieved. He made this clear in his August 2020 analysis of the Canadian union movement. 

With that fact in mind, multiple trade unions in Canada seem to have decided there are three potential paths for renewed relevance and increased membership. One option is to focus on increasing the number of unionized workers at sites where they are already recognized and accepted or where like-minded workers are found. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, for instance, has 45,000 teachers under its banner, but the fastest growing membership sector within the union is made up of people who don’t teach high school.

Over the last 25 years, the OSSTF has successfully signed up 15,000 new members by turning its attention to those working in education who had little or no representation. These new members of OSSTF include early childhood educators, office and clerical staff, technicians, custodians and board tradespeople, educational assistants and professional student services personnel not already represented by another union. The expansion at post-secondary has seen OSSTF organize not just instructors at some of Ontario’s largest universities, but support staff who work behind the scenes and whose labour is essential to the daily functioning of the institutions.

Locally, OSSTF’s decision to cast its net wider has led to the creation of a separate bargaining unit called the Professional Student Services Personnel, which has about 30 members. The PSSP represents speech language pathologists, communication disorders assistants, psycho-educational consultants and student services/attendance counsellors, according to Craig Horsley, District 15 president of OSSTF.

OSSTF has focused on the core business of representing educational workers, while expanding its reach to universities and even some private schools, stressing the message to its non-high school teaching members that “diversity is strength.”

The move has increased its membership by 25 per cent, far offsetting the loss in teacher membership because of declining enrolment in Ontario high schools, and, according to Horsley, providing a “major, growing segment of the union” that will continue to expand in the years to come.

The second route involves merging smaller unions into super-unions like Unifor, which represents workers from oilfields to assembly lines to communications.  This option might be best described as “the bigger the better.” The basic belief is the more people the union organizes the more money, muscle and influence the union will have in negotiations and ultimately with boots on the ground if a strike was found to be necessary.

Unifor’s own website acknowledges the motivation for the merger was largely to turn around declining union membership rolls. “Running parallel to this decline in union density had been a sharp rise in income inequality, growing threats to retirement security, chronic unemployment and underemployment (particularly for young people) and a noticeable rise in insecure, precarious forms of work, especially among newcomers,” the website notes. “The decline of union influence coincided with the rise of grossly imbalanced business-friendly policies, starting in the 1980s, that included tax cuts, labour market deregulation and corporate-led free trade deals.”

It took the better part of two years to consummate the merger between the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers Union that was finalized in 2013. The result was the creation of the most influential private trade union in Canada, Unifor, with 310,000 members in 29 sectors of the economy. More than one-third of the membership is female.

As president of Unifor, Jerry Dias is a force to be reckoned with. He’s on a first-name basis with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and he’s a first phone call when Ontario Premier Doug Ford of Ontario is looking for advice on how to deal with American protectionism.

In 2020, Dias and Unifor, with financial support from federal and provincial governments, cajoled Ford and Fiat Chrysler to make a $3.5 billion investment in the Canadian auto sector. More importantly, the investment will be in the construction of electric vehicles, which should lead to jobs for many years to come for Unifor members.

Dias’s crowning achievement, which will benefit workers in Kawartha Lakes for decades, is the reopening of the shuttered General Motors plant in Oshawa in 2021. At its peak, the plant employed 23,000 people, about 4,000 of whom called Kawartha Lakes home.

“Dias has the unshakeable belief that if you put in enough effort anything is possible including the seemingly impossible, the re-opening of GM in Oshawa,” wrote Financial Post reporter Joe O’Connor, who covered the press conference announcing the $1.3 billion investment by General Motors and the 1,700 Unifor jobs it created.

O’Connor added that with Unifor representing workers at Bell, Air Canada, Canadian National Railroad, Postmedia and the “Big Three” automotive producers, “their strength is in their size. They have members across the economy and they are a force that cannot be ignored.”

Unifor has recently expanded its reach by unionizing workers at the Loblaw distribution centre in Moncton and at casinos in Belleville and Peterborough, pilots flying for Skylink Express, Brink’s armoured car workers and employees at the Canobo Medical Corporation.

“Unifor has come very close to organizing numbers we had pre-pandemic and have seen a surge in the service and manufacturing sectors,” said Kelle Scanlon, Director of Organizing for Unifor in an email to the Advocate.

The third possibility, and perhaps the most intriguing, is for unions to take a serious look at which workers are unrepresented or underrepresented and in need of union protection and then try to boost the union movement by focusing on women, new Canadians, the self-employed and youth. This focus seems to be taken up by multiple unions the Advocate contacted.

While this option may require the most work, it also offers the most hope for unions. It starts with identifying workers who could benefit most from union representation.  Many of these workers have never had the possibility or even access to information about joining a union before. These individuals include so-called gig workers like Uber and Lyft drivers, new Canadians, workers at big box stores, Amazon warehouse workers, and migrant workers and agricultural workers in Canada on temporary work permits.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union is finding efforts to organize these workers slow going.

“Massive corporations like Amazon and Walmart use their considerable resources to employ teams of managers, legal staff and consultants who are experts at thwarting unionization campaigns and intimidating employees into voting against union representation,” UFCW’s Hurley said.

“These companies also incorporate anti-union propaganda into their employee communications, onboarding initiatives and training programs to convince workers that unionization would be against their interests, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” he added.

Scanlon and Unifor agree, pointing out that many workers are not fully aware of their right to unionize and shy away from the process, particularly if they feel vulnerable at work. Scanlon says the anti-union tactics employed by Walmart and Amazon are aggressive, but notes  other factors that hamper union organization among these employees.

“One of the major challenges in unionizing at organizations like Amazon is the extremely high turnover rate of workers, due to difficult working conditions and the precarious nature of employment. Workers don’t stick around to organize.” Scanlon said.

The high numbers of new Canadians in such workplaces also require organizers to think differently “Many new Canadians come from countries where those who join a union are punished or fired by their employer, or where there are so called ‘yellow unions’ that are basically in the pocket of the employer. It is important to recognize and address cultural sensitivities when reaching out to workers and to provide information in their first language to overcome language barriers,” Scanlon said.

Unifor, as part of a recent drive to unionize warehouse workers, provided information for workers in Hindi, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog and Tamil.

Until gig workers like Uber or food delivery drivers are reclassified by the government as employees rather than independent contractors, they cannot be organized, Hurley said. Migrant workers and agricultural workers currently also lack the right to organize, something the UFCW says it wants to change.

 The UFCW had success recently, organizing workers at Indigo outlets in Ontario and British Columbia, and at fast food giants like Tim Hortons and Wendy’s. The UFCW has successfully targeted retail cannabis operations and now represents workers at the largest cannabis retailer in Canada, Tokyo Smoke.

Despite the difficulties of recruiting over the past few years, the pandemic has actually spurred interest in unionization. “Heightened concerns around health and safety in the workplace have also inspired more workers to seek union representation in the coronavirus era,” Hurley said. “Workers are reporting increased cleaning and sanitization responsibilities on top of their standard job roles, often without the personal protective equipment needed to carry out their new duties safely. The renewed interest in unions is also starting to be reflected in Canada’s unionization rate.”

Union organizers in Canada are analyzing the May 2021 certification of a contract for 70,000 Uber drivers in the United Kingdom in hopes of replicating it here. The UK’s GMC union persuaded government regulators to reclassify Uber drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. With the surprising support of Uber, the GMC negotiated a contract that provided a living wage, holiday pay, a pension plan and sick pay to all Uber drivers.

The landmark agreement was the first of its kind anywhere in the world, setting the precedent for that is expected to have impact across most of the OEDC.

The Unite (Union of Needle Trade, Industrial and Textile Workers) Here (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union) movement has had success organizing hospitality and casino workers in Canada and the United States, journalist John Lorinc wrote in an April 2020 article in The Walrus. He observed that Unite Here has the advantage that union members’ jobs cannot be outsourced according to their agreement, and that more and more hotel chains are accepting the reality that their workers now will have union representation. Unite Here has 50,000 members in Canada and 200,000 members in the United States in 2020.

“Service sector jobs are here to stay,” Lorinc quoted Unite Here Toronto Local 75 organizer Lis Pimental as saying. “Workers want an industry where people can have real lives and raise families … and enjoy middle class lives.”

Lorinc credited the growth of Unite Here to its constant and open communication with members, organizers who interact regularly with workers they either already represent or are hoping to represent.

“Too many unions in Canada see themselves as Canadian first,” Jorge Hurtado, legal counsel for Unite Here Toronto Local 75 told Lorinc , “and they are more concerned with having a maple leaf on their logo than representing all workers. There is no border for Unite Here. Hotels and casinos are everywhere.”

The future of unionism

Any large and complex organization that wants to survive and grow must be flexible and open to change. After experiencing the multiple hammer blows of globalization, automation and the birth of a service worker-driven gig economy, unions were initially slow to adapt and faced three decades of steady decline in their memberships, relevance and political influence.

Girded by the strength and support of public sector unions that found ways to increase their memberships, private sector unions have finally realized that the manufacturing and resource extraction jobs that once powered their unions are never coming back. The typical 20th century union representing all workers in a handful of huge factories, mines or mills is no longer a template that works in the 21st century. Work and workers are more diversified and spread out now, with many even working at home because of the pandemic.

“The labour movement must keep seeking ways to become more relevant and effective for Canadian workers,” Stanford said, summarizing the key challenges the movement faces. “It must build new ways of organizing and representing workers in precarious, temporary and non-standard jobs. It must dramatically improve its presence and activity with communities of immigrant and racialized workers. It must engage young people in the fight for decent jobs. And it must successfully integrate the struggle for jobs and the struggle for environmental sustainability.”

If Stanford’s recipe can be achieved, there is no reason that the future cannot be bright for the movement as a whole and for the workers it represents.

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