Attitudes, legislation make organizing more difficult

Move to secret ballot votes after union card sign-up has frustrated certification drives

In a poll reported last week, the majority of Canadian workers said they believe unions have a positive impact on the workplace, but they’re not that keen on joining one.

One in two workers (52 per cent) believe unions are still relevant but nearly six in 10 say they wouldn’t opt for a union if they had the choice, according to the survey commissioned by the Canadian LabourWatch Association.

The results are not surprising to Sara Slinn, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto.

She says research shows unions offer many things workers want, but the perception is often that union representation will bring conflict into the workplace.

“There’s also this idea that workers represented by unions are getting something more than me — and maybe not deservedly,” she says.

As well, with only about 31 per cent of Canadians working in a unionized job, Slinn says it’s difficult for non-unionized workers to assess the merits of belonging to a trade union.

She says both of these elements are making it increasingly difficult for unions to organize new workplaces.

“Unions don’t seem to be that successful at achieving a good public image,” she says.

But Slinn argues there are other issues frustrating organization drives, among them the shift toward secret ballot election certification in several provinces.

Research by several people, including Slinn, has found a decline in certification after the introduction of mandatory certification votes.

At the same time, she has also observed a shift towards larger bargaining units concentrated mostly in the manufacturing sector, while declining in the service sector and among part-time employees.

“Over the past 15 years, it’s become more difficult to organize,” says Slinn. “The legislation in most jurisdictions requires unions to be elected twice: once to have the majority of workers sign cards and then to get their vote.”

The average unionization rate in 2010 for the four Canadian provinces permitting automatic certification was 32.1 per cent compared to 29.7 per cent among those requiring certification votes.

But LabourWatch president John Mortimer argues the decline in union interest is a result of unions being out of touch with workers.

The Nanos poll found a strong majority of workers want more transparency about how union dues are spent, they want secret ballot voting during a union drive and they believe workers should be allowed to cross their picket lines if they disagree with the union.

“But we have yet to find a union leader in Canada who supports this,” he says. “Other countries have much more responsive leaders.”

Still, there hasn’t been a significant trend toward decertification either. According to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board, there were 19 “revocation” requests in 2009–2010 compared with 122 requests for certification. The five-year peak in activity came in 2008–2009 with 28 requests to decertify, coinciding with a low in certification requests at 113.

Mortimer blames fear for preventing unionized workers from attempting to decertify. As one of the few countries in the world where workers must belong to a union where it exists in a workplace, he says few workers are willing to speak out.

“Employees are not a powerful force when they’re going up against their union,” he says. “Even the ‘reformers’ in unions have to go through cat calls and shenanigans if they try to speak out.”

Slinn, meanwhile, argues complaints against unions for undue pressure or coercion have been rare in Canada, and findings of guilt even more rare.

But she acknowledges attitudes towards unions are becoming increasingly polarized.

“Unions are not the only collective representation organization out there,” she says. “Maybe it’s time we also looked at other forms of organization.”

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