Labour unions need to get creative

Radical economic and social change has made it clear that unions need to think outside the box.


(Photo: Dave Chidley/CP)

The ground is shifting in workplaces across Canada and around the globe. At a time of unprecedented economic, technological and social change, the very nature of work and the jobs that the vast majority of Canadians perform each day are becoming increasingly insecure and unstable.

Even a brief glance at any monthly job market report from Statistics Canada shows a trend toward more and more Canadians doing part-time, contract, temporary and self-employed kinds of work. Young people have a national unemployment rate of almost 14%, climbing to more than 20% in some parts of the country; for those who are working, half are employed part-time. Young people especially are finding it difficult to find full-time jobs with decent wages, benefits and pensions.

Traditionally, unions have fought hard to improve wages, benefits, hours of work, pensions, health and safety, job security and training for their members. A lot of the economic success realized in the postwar years is correlated to the expansion of collective bargaining and union rights. But the dramatic economic downturn in the world economy that hurt so many workers starting in 2008 only accelerated a decades-long trend toward more precarious jobs and the unstable hours, low wages, minimal benefits and insecurity that this work means for so many.

In Canada, approximately 30% of workers still belong to unions, but the future is uncertain. In the U.S., for example, the number of organized workers in the private sector has declined to just 7%. As increasingly fast-paced change grips our economy and society, it’s clear that it’s time for unions to think about doing things in a new way.

A recent Abacus Data poll, done on behalf of Public Response—an agency that works with labour—indicates that a majority of Canadians, 61%, believe unions do a good job of protecting their members’ jobs. But only 46% believe unions do a good job of improving their members’ lives as well as the lives of others—in spite of data that proves the contrary time and time again. Regardless of the best efforts of the broader labour movement to improve working conditions for all, a large group is not convinced we are getting the job done.

It’s time for labour to explore creative ideas and inclusive approaches to organizing more workers in this new economic era. One of the most exciting developments in Canada is the innovative, forward-looking proposal being developed by two of Canada’s largest private sector unions: the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union (CEP) and the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW).

The two unions are now in the process of voting on a detailed proposal that would combine them into a new “super-union.” CAW delegates have already voted in favour of the initiative at a convention in August; CEP members will cast their votes in October. If this effort—which we have dubbed the “New Union Project”—is approved by both unions, it would create Canada’s largest private-sector union, with more than 300,000 members. But more than that, it would also incorporate innovative and effective new structures and practices.

The new union would commit $50 million over five years to organizing new workers across all economic sectors, which is far higher than both unions currently contribute to organizing efforts. Early discussions also include possible new forms of membership among workers who are not traditionally organized, including unemployed workers, students, workers in contract, self-employed, temporary and freelance positions.

If endorsed, this new union proposal could radically reshape the face of Canada’s labour movement. The critical mass of workers the new union would represent in each province could provide a new political force in the face of rising inequality and injustice. It could also provide a vital support for the growing ranks of insecure and precariously employed Canadians that we hear about in job reports each month—those who continue to fall through the cracks.

Ken Lewenza is president of the Canadian Auto Workers union