CAW-CEP ‘super-union’ gets green light and could prove to be a game changer with its inclusive membership model
By Todd Humber
Costco used to be an exclusive club.
Not anyone could walk in off the street and sign up for a membership at the retail warehouse. You had to prove you were an employee of an approved company or a member of a specific organization in order to get a Costco card that allowed you the privilege of loading 10-gallon tubs of ketchup into your shopping cart.
But now anyone can buy a Costco membership — a much better business model. It still feels like an exclusive club, though, because you have to ante up the membership fee and flash your card to get in the door.
Now, two of the largest unions in Canada are following in Costco’s footsteps. The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union and the Communications Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) union have voted to merge and form an unnamed super-union — making it the largest private-sector union in the nation.
CAW members ratified the idea back in August, and the CEP climbed on board this week as more than 90 per cent of its membership endorsed the merger at its convention in Quebec City.
So how is the super-union like Costco? Well, if you want to join, you won’t need to be an employee of a unionized workplace. Students? Welcome. Retired workers and seniors? Come on in. The unemployed? We’ve got a seat for you.
It’s no longer an exclusive club or, to use union-lingo, a “closed shop.”
There are still plenty of fine points to be worked out, such as who will lead the union —neither CAW national president Ken Lewenza nor CEP national president Dave Coles has ruled out a run. It’s not clear how much, or even if, the union will charge the new, non-traditional members it’s hoping to recruit.
The bold move is an attempt to revitalize the union movement in Canada. As I’ve stated before in this space, unions have been losing the public relations war. Canadians have been more inclined to elect right-leaning governments at all three levels of government, and centrist parties — like the Liberals — have shifted many policies to the right.
What is baffling about the freefall in popular opinion is the majority of Canadians undoubtedly still believe in what unions have always stood for — fair wages, job security, solid pensions and benefits for all workers.
Unions haven’t been successful in recent decades because employers have been proactive in keeping organized labour at bay. Many employers have realized treating their workforce well pays huge dividends — there’s that saying that employers get the union they deserve.
Investing in salary increases, strong benefit plans and making contributions to a worker’s retirement fund pays off. Employers understand this now much better than they did during the heyday of unions, and kudos to HR for being the ones who often made that case.
Because of that, it’s difficult to convince the average Canadian, who is earning $906.68 per week according to Statistics Canada — or about $47,000 per year — that joining a union will really change their working life, other than to force them to fork over their hard-earned money in union dues. It feels like a payroll tax without benefit.
But the average Canadian isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) the target of the super-union. Instead, they need to focus on the most vulnerable workers — those earning minimum wage, working in unsafe conditions or otherwise being exploited by unscrupulous employers.
If the union can get these workers on board, and advocate for improving their lot in life, the caricature of the unionized worker will change into a picture that resonates with more Canadians.
Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.