Trends in trade union renewal

Worker respect in non-union shops impediment to growth

The labour movement is dealing with declining membership in the face of globalization and is going to have to adapt to survive. At least that is the view expressed by one of experts quoted in a recent Conference Board of Canada Industrial Relations Outlook. Statistics over the last 15 years show a long slow decline in union membership; only 29.7 per cent of workers were union members as of June 2006. In the private sector union density has fallen to 17 per cent, while in the public sector, about 71.4 per cent of workers are members of a union.

Gregory Murray, director of the Inter-University Research Centre on Globalization and Work at the University of Montreal, makes several observations about how workers view unions and what unions are going to have to do to remain meaningful to workers in the new economy. He notes that even with the lower salaries and poorer benefits found in many non-union workplaces, workers don’t flock to join unions. He suggests that “many non-unionized employers are managing their employees in such a way that workers do not feel the need for unions.” Being satisfied with how supervisors handle complaints is one area where non-unionized workers are more content than their unionized counterparts, according to a 2003 Canada Labour Congress worker survey.

Murray also notes that not enough unions have staff dedicated solely to organizing new members. In addition, unions need to expand their reach into sectors where historically they have not tried to find members. The service sector is a good example. One service sector union recently brought its members from 20 different worksites together to work on a coordinated bargaining strategy with building maintenance and cleaning giant, Hurley Corporation. The Service Employees International Union indicated this was the first time the union had held such a conference.

Another problem facing unions is that a new generation of young workers does not necessarily buy into basic union values of seniority and honouring picket lines, says Murray. Certainly with an older workforce for whom whose retirement looms ever closer, unions may feel pressured to bargain for greater pension guarantees at the expense of higher wages for younger workers. And on the issue of the adversarial nature of labour-management relations, unions are in a catch-22 situation. As Murray observes, “If they collaborate too closely with management, their members may vote them out of their positions.” Yet many workers seem to want collaborative rather than adversarial solutions to workplace problems.

Globalization has lead to serious job losses especially in the manufacturing sector. In order to counteract lower wages and eventual job loss as a result of competition from third-world countries, unions are beginning to look beyond national borders in order to develop international ”framework agreements.” These global bargaining arrangements, notes Murray, strive to “set minimum labour standards wherever they operate.” One example is the creation of the Union-Network International (UNI), a global union created in 2000 and headquartered in Nyon, Switzerland. The UNI has developed several such framework agreements, which transcend national boundaries, and lay the foundation for collective bargaining agreements with multi- national corporations whose operations also cross borders. The use of child labour and the right to form a union are some of the issues the UNI is concerned with.

Finally Murray points out that like the UNI, many other unions are moving away from issues specific to their particular locals in order to tackle social issues in general –– a move which can divide the labour movement. The group wanting to focus resources on organizing new members is set against those wanting to use the union’s time and money to influence the general public on employment-related issues. This split in focus needs to be resolved if the union movement is to flourish. Murray notes that once union membership falls below a critical mass, it will be very difficult for unions to remain relevant and the movement to survive.

Lorna Harris is the assistant editor of Canadian HR Reporter’s sister publication CLV Reports, a weekly newsletter that reports on collective bargaining and other issues in labour relations. For more information visit

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