Two United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) locals in Ontario have combined to create what is believed to be North America’s largest local union. Together, Locals 175 and 1977 will represent 60,000 workers, many of them employed by grocery giant Loblaw.
“It’s becoming more and more important,” said UFCW Canada director Wayne Hanley of the move towards “super locals” as unions struggle with declining membership, aggressive employers and continuing economic turmoil. “If we pool our resources, we can give better service.”
It’s not UFCW’s first foray into large-scale amalgamation. In Saskatchewan, the union has merged several smaller locals into Local 1400, which now represents 6,000 members across the province.
Super locals have many benefits, according to Hanley, the most obvious being a more powerful negotiating position, particularly with Loblaws. Locals 175 and 1977 successfully bargained together during the last round of negotiations with the company, which laid the groundwork for the merger, he said.
“We’ve developed relationships and trust. We have common thinking and that leads to progressive leadership.”
“There’s less chance of divisiveness with one president, for example. You’re in a better position because you’re not playing one against the other,” said Hanley.
Other benefits include access to in-house legal counsel and professional training, as well as lower dues because of more efficient administration.
The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) has traditionally incorporated smaller locals into amalgamated unions, sometimes by design and other times by necessity, said CAW president Ken Lewenza.
For example, Local 397 in Brantford, Ont., was once among the union’s most powerful locals, representing workers at the Massey Ferguson manufacturing plant. Declining sales, restructuring and the eventual closure of the plant forced the remaining local to amalgamate with another larger local.
“We do have some smaller locals and we’ve asked them to consider joining a larger local only for the purpose of the workers being identified with a union,” said Lewenza. “Some small locals have no union hall or full-time representative and the union is not always as effective as it could be.”
Still, Lewenza said he was surprised by the magnitude of the UFCW merger.
“Now you’re not talking about a ‘local’ union,” he said. “Sixty-thousand members would, in many ways, do the work done at a national level. Local to us means local, as in incorporated in the local community. In Oshawa, for example, people know (Local) 222.”
While not critizing UFCW’s merger, Lewenza said there will most likely be plenty of challenges for a local of this size. He looked at his union’s own Local 195 in Windsor, Ont., which represents more than 70 bargaining units.
“You have 70 employer groups and 70 different objectives,” he said. “From time to time, some members feel there’s not the same attention given to them. We’ve heard many times that we’re more concerned about workers at Chrysler than Casino Windsor.”
That’s often because the media follows more closely the negotiations with larger employers than “the five people working at the tool-and-die company or the doughnut shop down the street,” said Lewenza.
Still, larger locals will be the way of the future for Canada’s unions, he said. The CAW has seen membership decline from 80,000 members one generation ago to 30,000 today.
“When five small locals merge into one big local, they will better utilize administration — not just to bargain for themselves but to market themselves,” he said.
“We can take advantage of our synergies and set aside resources to work together,” he said. “The time to address this is while we’re still growing. It’s better than waiting until we’re desperate.”
Danielle Harder is a Brooklin, Ont.-based freelance writer. This article originally appeared in Canadian Labour Reporter, a sister publication that looks at trends in labour relations and collective agreements. For more information, visit www.labour-reporter.com.
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