New challenges for unions

Demographic shifts, technology, remote work create new type of workplace
By Graeme McFarlane
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/01/2018

The modern workplace is vastly different than that experienced even a short while ago. There are many changes underway: some structural, some attitudinal and some technological. Together, all of these changes directly affect how management interacts with employees and unions.

The demographic makeup of the workplace is undergoing a dramatic shift. Baby boomers are finally starting to retire, and millennials are arriving with new and different expectations.

Although grossly generalized, these cohorts bring different experiences and have very different expectations and needs. With the end of mandatory retirement, many baby boomers choose to continue working far past 65.

As the workplace ages, employers are faced with more problems regarding disability management and are also concerned that when the boomers leave, they will take vast repositories of knowledge and experience with them.

Millennials have demonstrated a desire for specific, individualized job training, and a higher level of feedback. A job for life is not the expectation or even the goal for this group. Indeed, they often express impatience or the need for instant results by frequently changing jobs or even careers. 

The notion of democratic rights is being eroded by the millennial focus on individual needs. Accordingly, unions are becoming concerned about an increasing number of “fair representation” complaints. The growth sectors of the economy generally emphasize and reward individual skills or non-substitutable labour. This runs contrary to many of the principles that unions have advanced during the industrial period.

On the other hand, progressive unions are using their history of activism and political involvement to position themselves as an alternate choice for younger workers who feel disenfranchised with the status quo.

Younger people are less likely to be unionized and that number is in decline. There are many theories as to why. Some suggest millennials want to maintain control over the terms of their work relationships and build in flexibility. Others say that modern careers in service industries are harder to organize, so there are fewer union positions to occupy in the new economy.

And robots are now heavily used in factory settings. Traditional jobs have been replaced with technicians responsible for maintaining and programming these robotic systems. As a result, the education and training needed for what were once considered blue-collar positions have greatly increased.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will be the next technological wave to impact the workforce, and there are many knowledge-based jobs that could be replaced.

Intertwined with technology are societies’ notions about work itself.

There is a practical reality, and work and life are not separate and distinct ideas. Work is often an integral part of someone’s life — it is not simply a private contractual relationship, it is a social institution that can require regulation by society.

Legal regulation has moved from the protection of the tangible (such as minimum wages and hours of work) to the intangible (such as injury to dignity or privacy interests).

There have been an increasing number of interesting complaints related to workplace situations. One example is the issue of connectivity. It is important for employers to have policies in place that address remote work. Many questions can arise. How is this work paid? Monitored? How is proprietary information protected? How is privacy maintained?

With all of this change, unions have to adapt to remain relevant.

With the decline in labour-servicing mass production, it has become more costly for unions to properly serve members. As a result, unions have to find new ways to communicate and support members who are often scattered in locations across a jurisdiction.

With significant technological advancements on the horizon, the future workplace may be completely different than today. Hold on tight, we are in for a ride.

Graeme McFarlane is a founding partner at Roper Greyell in Vancouver, providing strategic and practical advice to employers on labour, employment and human rights issues in the workplace. He can be reached at gmcfarlane@ropergreyell or visit for more information.

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