With GoodLife Fitness touting its corporate culture over the years — and making it onto several top employer lists — it may have come as a surprise to some when employees in Toronto voted to unionize at the fitness chain.
More than 900 participated in a vote on June 6, with 181 personal trainers voting yes and 116 voting no when it came to joining Workers United Canada Council, and 147 group fitness instructors voting yes while 305 voted no.
The employer community is not particularly attuned to the risks and consequences of unionization, said Jeffrey Murray, a partner at Stringer in Toronto.
“Many employers sort of think that it’s not really anything that could possibly happen to them. But… it can happen to them and it’s a very significant consequence to them and it’s a fundamental change in how they deal with their employees.”
Serous concerns started being expressed a few years ago, according to Alana Free, vice-president of people and culture at GoodLife in Toronto, which has just over 14,000 employees countrywide.
“Initially, I was really surprised because we worked really hard at open communication and transparency and listening to associates or employees to find out what’s going on, how can we do things better.”
In response, the chain made several changes, she said, starting with holding town halls to hear about people’s concerns, explain GoodLife’s reasoning and manage expectations. Weekly communication also went out from managers to talk about changes being made based on the feedback, said Free.These included better uniforms, better equipment and equipment repairs and improved benefits.
As for non-compete clauses, these were something GoodLife had had for many years, were typical for the industry and were clearly outlined and explained in the onboarding process — but many people misunderstood their meaning, said Free.
There was also a perception of wages being clawed back when it came to commissions. It’s a complicated system and GoodLife is working on making it more straightforward so people understand it better, she said.
Workers’ compensation was another concern, as fitness clubs in Ontario do not have to subscribe to the province’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), said Free. But GoodLife focuses on prevention and keeping people healthy and safe, she said, along with providing an employee assistance program for employees, no matter how many hours they work. And if workers are injured, the company will help them apply for employment insurance to make sure people are aware of what they’re entitled to.
GoodLife also offers long-term disability plans and provides free CPR training, she said.
But the lack of WSIB protection was a big concern for workers, said Navjeet Sidhu, researcher and communications officer at Workers United in Toronto, which has 10,000 members across Canada.
“This is very physical type of work and if you get injured, there was no protection for them.”
People have also had to pay out of pocket for their own equipment and for GoodLife’s internal certification system, which requires renewal on a yearly basis, he said.
“The costs of working at GoodLife kept adding up.”
GoodLife also made a point to better explain its compensation, said Free.
“We’re constantly doing competition analysis to make sure we are competitive with other fitness clubs in the region.”
The negotiated wage increases unions have been able to deliver over the last 10 years are basically near the rate of inflation, said Murray.
“Workers out there know that and they’re not easily persuaded with the promise that they’re going to get a huge wage increase if they join the union. And to be fair to the unions, I don’t believe that they actually go around making those kinds of promises.”
So throwing money at the possibility of a problem is not really the best way for employers to approach discontent, said Murray.
“It’s useful for employers to have objective evidence that they can present to employees to show that their wages are competitive, that their policies are progressive, that the types of terms and conditions that their unionized competitors offer are no different than what they offer, or in fact what they offer can be superior in some ways.”
What more motivates people is if they feel they have not been treated fairly, he said.
“There’s a sense they’re not getting fair treatment and… each workplace has its own set of grievances and if there are enough that cause many employees to feel their employer is not treating them fairly, then the union has a greater chance of succeeding in organizing those employees.”
While GoodLife kept reiterating its position about improving conditions for employees, and it started to back off on some of the costs, said Sidhu, “there wasn’t any meaningful or substantive changes that employees felt like, ‘OK, maybe we don’t need a union.’ I think they were just piecemeal provisions that workers felt it was not enough and ‘We still need collective representation.’”
A lot of companies say they have an open door policy and open communication but it’s very easy to say that and another thing to actually do it, said Murray.
“They need a culture whereby individual employees are able to come to their managers and senior managers with legitimate concerns… and feel like they get a fair hearing and that their concerns are at least addressed fairly.”
And once an application for certification has been made, changes to the terms and conditions of employment can’t be made, said Murray.
“You can’t promise, ‘Oh, we’re going to give you a wage increase if you vote no.’ That’s an unfair labour practice. If you do that, you could wind up being certified by the labour relations board through its power to order remedial certification,” he said.
“It’s a very effective check on the over-zealous employer that wants to cross the line.”
Going forward, GoodLife will face a new way of doing things when it comes to areas such as compensation, promotions and discipline for employees who are unionized.
“Discipline becomes much more complicated — it’s subject to a grievance procedure and that can ultimately result in any disciplinary decision being overturned by a neutral, third-party arbitrator,” said Murray.
“HR is held a lot more accountable in a unionized workplace, and operational management is going to be held a lot more accountable in a unionized workplace.”
There will also be divisions among the workforce, with some employees not wanting to be in the bargaining unit while others are eager to take an active role in the negotiation of the first agreement, he said.
“There’s not much (an employer) can do post-certification about that, other than to treat people fairly with an even hand and pay no regard to who supported the union and who didn’t. That’s a critical point…. favouritism against people who supported the union is in fact illegal because any kind of discrimination based on whether someone supported the union or not is unlawful.”
It’s about setting a positive tone, said Sidhu.
“Often, employers may be angry that workers decided to unionize and that starts things off on a bad foot and we definitely don’t want to start going down that road of being in a hostile kind of negotiation environment.”
GoodLife plans to continue to have a positive and collaborative relationship with all employees, according to COO Jane Riddell in a release.
“This is new territory for us but we are confident that we will be able to work together with our employees to create a healthy and successful future for all.”
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