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Unions retooling for the new reality

Organized labour could recapture hearts, minds of public if proposed CAW-CEP 'mega-union' is successful in helping vulnerable workers

By Todd Humber

When times get tough, when sales or market share falls, organizations often take a step back and retool.

It’s business 101 — if your sails aren’t filling with wind, it’s time to change course.

Canadian unions are taking a page from the business handbook, with two of the largest private-sector organizations going back to the drawing board and plotting a massive overhaul that could change the landscape of organized labour in this country.

The proposed merger between the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union (CEP) — forming a yet to be named “mega-union” — is a move every employer should be following closely.

Because, let’s be honest, over the last few years unions have lost the PR war in North America. Union bashing, once the exclusive milieu of the corporate boardroom, has gone mainstream.

Call it jealousy, call it misplaced if you want, but the word “union” is tainted in a lot of corners. The common perception — and perception is indeed reality — is unionized workers are unproductive, overpaid and living high off the hog on benefits and pension packages many workers can’t comprehend.

Workers who are watching their defined contribution (DC) pension plans shrink or grow ever so meagerly, where a secure retirement is but a pipe dream with current market conditions, watch with envy as their neighbor sails off into the sunset at age 55 with a guaranteed defined benefit (DB) pension.

The fact a good chunk of the unionized workforce are in the public sector isn’t helping with that neighbourhood jealousy — workers without pensions are fuming about footing the bill for DB plans through the taxes they pay. 

But let’s get back to the private-sector unions, and the move afoot by the CAW and CEP.

They’re retooling. In his Labour Day message, CAW national president Ken Lewenza said the mega-union will be adopting a more inclusive membership model.

“Local unions will be hubs of activity for workers’ rights and awareness, providing services to the membership and affiliated community members. A new membership model will allow for the organization to be a truly inclusive national general workers union — a genuine home for all working people, regardless of their profession, job or employment status,” he said.

Also on the agenda is what he called an “unprecedented” outreach to organize workers. And that outreach is backed up with significant resources in the form of a $50 million organizing fund.

Lewenza said the challenge is for unions is to be innovative, and reach out to “precariously employed, low wage, part-time and temporary workers” — and those stuck in dead-end jobs. How successful they are in that group is how the worth of unions will be measured, he said.

Success on that front is a sure-fire way to turn the tide in the PR war. If the new mega-union is successful in helping vulnerable workers — those earning minimum wage with no benefits in dead-end jobs — then public perception could shift.

Unions could again be viewed as helping the little guy rather than defending largesse, and it could snowball into more successful organizing drives.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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