Canadian HR Reporter labour relations roundtable

Unionization rates may have stabilized, but can unions keep up with an ever-changing labour landscape?
By Sabrina Nanji
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 02/27/2014

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What have you done — and more importantly — what have you done for me lately?

Those questions — posed at Canadian HR Reporter’s roundtable discussion by Elaine Newman, an arbitrator, mediator and instructor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. — were directed towards the universal union movement.

It’s no secret the labour movement has taken a slow, steady hit over the past 30 years. Unionization rates across the country have crumbled, settling in at less than 30 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

But this most recent decade has seen that decline taper off and the numbers hold steady. As unionization rates stabilize, now marks a watershed moment for organizing efforts — with unions sitting on a powder keg that could restore the labour movement to its former glory.

The revolution has already begun. The fall of 2013 saw the birth of Unifor — the fusing together of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) unions to create the largest private sector union in the country, representing about 300,000 employees across 20 sectors.

The gloves are off. Unifor has come out of the gate full speed, targeting workplaces with precarious and young workers that have rarely been the subject of unionization bids. It has donated 10 per cent of its resources, $10 million, to organizing efforts.

Rocky road ahead for union organizers

Canadian HR Reporter recently mediated a roundtable discussion on the future of unions in the private sector with a slew of expert panellists representing both labour and management.

The conclusion? Unions face a rocky road ahead, littered with obstacles.

But the current climate lends itself to the natural next step in evolution, said Bill Murnighan, director of Unifor’s research department.

Perhaps one of the most challenging hurdles facing the union movement is the PR battle. Often, perception dictates reality, and Unifor’s public image may be in need of a makeover before new and non-traditional workplaces rally behind the labour movement.

“Unionized workers, particularly workers in the private sector, have gone through tremendous job loss, stagnated wages and reductions in their incomes. So the idea of jobs for life or gold-plated working conditions is not the reality,” said Murnighan.

It has become clear traditional organizing tactics are no longer relevant. When the majority of us think of unions, we think of the union our parents belonged to.

That is, unions that fought for and won vacation days, reduced working hours, benefits and the creation of the middle class, said Peter Edwards, vice-president of human resources and labour relations at Canadian Pacific.

Typically, most people envision unionized workers as blue-collar or government employees, which means Unifor’s challenge will be to reel in the rest of the working world with tailored, appealing incentives.

“The question is, what does the future hold for me? You can call it a PR war, you can call it an advertising campaign — how do you create a vision for people, how do you then put the leadership behind it and attract people to what you do? Where do I fit in? Where are the people like me? And what can you offer me in the future?” said Edwards.

“Also, creating a collective sense of responsibility that we may not have in the measure that we had before. We tend to split up our benefits packages so ‘You get exactly this and you get exactly that, and you can tailor it to your individual needs’ — but we don’t think of a broader need. And that’s sort of led to the attitude that we’re all on our own.”

Image problems plague entire workforce — not just unions

Unions are not the only entity struggling with perception problems — so is the entire workforce, argued Ted Mallett, vice-president and chief economist at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). He points to certain studies indicating workers do not opt for unions if they are satisfied with their jobs.

That involves communication, quality decision-making and employee involvement, which go above and beyond the bargaining table, he said.

“You’re not talking about the PR problem, you’re talking about the general public having a very different perspective on the workplace than unions. It’s not just a problem that necessarily needs solving, in our view,” said Mallett.

“These kinds of shifts are important to make sure that we’ve got the appropriate policy means and the appropriate policies out there to ensure that it’s not really a union-centred or an employer-centred kind of perspective. It’s what people want, how do they want to associate themselves and how do we allow that to take place?”

And in order to be an attractive alternative for non-traditional and non-unionized groups, labour efforts will not only have to offer tangible motivation for those specific workers, but an image they can rally behind.

“If the unions are going to make that progress, they’ve got to make it compelling for people to belong to that group that has that affiliation and an image for them to aspire to want to be a part of,” said Edwards.

The solution, according to Newman, lies in education. For unions, knowledge is power, and they must draw from the past in order to move ahead in the future.

“The best possible tool, the best possible weapon, is education,” she said. “The facts are solid. What have the unions done — and more importantly — what have you done for me lately? That’s the key question and perhaps the most problematic question given the current trending that we’re seeing.”

Three’s company

Despite an uphill battle on the horizon, Unifor has donned its armour in an attempt to regain unions’ former stronghold in the workforce.

So what happens if a union comes knocking? Rule number one: Don’t panic.

“The big thing is overreaction,” said Jamie Knight, a partner at labour and employment law firm Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti in Toronto.

“The fact of the matter is most businesses, unless they’re inherently unhealthy, will survive a union-organizing campaign whether or not the union is successful. If the union is successful, you are in a transformed workplace, you are dealing with a third party, but there is no reason why your workplace cannot continue to succeed.”

In fact, Knight went so far as to say that in extreme cases, a union can be the best option for employees. That is, the union can act as a partner and help implement effective HR policies, essentially forcing employers to do exactly what they ought to have been doing.

However, more often than not, employers balk at the notion of having a union seep into their office. To an extent, unions might be considered a last resort, a plea for help from employees who historically organize when the terms and conditions of employment are not up to code. So it stands to reason that fashioning a well-oiled workplace will quash any whispers of organizing amongst staff.

“It’s already too late. You can’t start having a non-union workforce when the union shows up to try to organize your employees. You have to start having a non-union workforce from the moment you decide to be a business that employs people,” said Knight.

“And the only effective way I’ve seen an employer remain a non-union workplace is by having excellent human resources policies and practices and by doing the kinds of things that unions would come to the workplace they could help the workers achieve.”

That includes fair and transparent wages, opportunities for development, above-par health and safety policies, and a welcoming environment for women, visible minorities and persons with disabilities — all the components a union will bring, said Knight.

“If that’s the workplace you’re offering, then your chances of remaining a non-union workplace are significantly higher — there are no guarantees — but they’re significantly higher than if you’re operating a workplace that does not practise those values,” he said.

“It’s not a lip service, it’s day in and day out. That’s the only way I’ve ever seen it succeed.”

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