Unions need to get back to basics: Report

Volatile collective bargaining predicted for 2014

Unions need to get back to the basics, says a new report from the Conference Board of Canada.

Released on Dec. 11, the board’s annual Industrial Relations Outlook report indicates Canadian unions stand before a crossroads.

Whereas the overall number of unionized workers is on the rise, they only represent about 31 per cent of the labour force – down from its peak at 34 per cent during the 1980s. Those unions dominate the public sector, as only 17 per cent of the private sector is represented by organized labour.

Public sector workers will therefore be the key group during next year’s round of bargaining – which may also foreshadow rockier negotiations.

“There is potential for volatility in public sector bargaining in 2014, because the union movement sees legislative attempts to restrict bargaining rights, intervention in labour disputes and efforts to overhaul long-standing benefits – such as sick leave – as attacks on public servants,” said Karla Thorpe, director of leadership and human resources research at the conference board. “Especially in the public sector, the bargaining tone may be more negative and unions less willing to compromise. This climate likely makes it more difficult to address mundane workplace issues that would normally be dealt with pragmatically at the bargaining table.”

Increasingly more employers named wages as the bargaining priority – a jump from 55 per cent to 60 per cent over the last year. Because average base pay increases for unionized workers are projected to be 1.5 per cent in the public sector and 2.2 per cent for the private sector, governments will be reticent to offer increases as they work to reduce deficits. That means wages will be a vital provision at the bargaining table, the report noted.

In order for the labour movement to grow its ranks, it must go back to basics, Thorpe added.

“That means organizing more workers in more industries. Sectors such as business services have seen the greatest job growth since the recession, but unions have not had notable success organizing these workplaces,” she said. “And unions have made few inroads among employees working for smaller employers, independent contractors and contingent workers.”

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