Unions going after private service sector

Labour pushing to organize the unorganized

In 1999, for the first time in five decades, union density in Canada dipped below 30 per cent of the paid labour force. To arrest this membership decline, many unions came to conclusion that they had to place renewed emphasis on organizing the unorganized.

They’re reaching out to women, youth and people of colour employed in the private service sector, where unions have had a weak presence. Between 1997 and 2000, union membership in Canada increased in a small but distinct set of occupations and sectors. These include finance, insurance, real estate and leasing, nursing, support staff, university teachers, retail, child care and home care, as well as construction.

These increases reflect, in part, recent strategic decisions by unions to organize the private service sector, a growing sector that is also seen by many as the labour movement’s Achilles heel.

Labour board data confirms this trend in organizing. In Ontario, union organizing attempts among workers in the private service sector increased by more than 50 per cent between the 1980s and 1990s (in the last five years of the 1980s, for instance, approximately 14,000 workers in the private service sector were organized, compared to 34,000 over a five-year period in the 1990s). In the same periods, organizing in traditional areas of union support, namely manufacturing and construction, declined.

Surprisingly, the unions most active in organizing workers in the private service sector are older industrial unions such as the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW). According to results from my survey in the late 1990s of 1,130 union organizers in Ontario and British Columbia, only 32 per cent of applications to the labour board were in the manufacturing sector. Private-service sector organizing accounted for 44 per cent.

Who are these workers in the private service sector that unions are organizing? They are workers employed in hotels, home care agencies and offices. They serve food, clean rooms, attend children and the elderly and work as secretaries. More often than not, they are women.

It’s important to recognize the gender of newly organized workers, because women are more likely than men to vote in favour of unionization. My research has shown that in Ontario, for every one per-cent increase in the presence of women in the workforce, there’s a corresponding one per-cent increase in the likelihood that a certification vote succeeds. Workplaces in which women constitute the majority of workers are much more likely to vote in favour of union certification than male-dominated workplaces. This trend is especially significant in private sector workplaces.

Who’s doing the organizing?

This new attention on organizing the private service sector and female-dominated workplaces raises a host of questions about changes in union strategy. Specifically, how are unions changing organizing practices to respond to the needs of groups of workers, who are quite different from incumbent members?

There exists no single model for union renewal. Rather, innovation is a slow and uneven process. It is therefore necessary to examine and learn from strategic innovations across a range of unions operating in different parts of the economy and country.

The first order of change refers to the strategies unions use to reach out to, and organize, a more diverse population of workers. Changes to union strategy begin with changing who does the organizing. They include, in particular, hiring organizers with diverse backgrounds and demographic characteristics and deploying rank-and-file organizers.

Canada is racially and ethnically diverse and the labour force is changing accordingly. Added to this is the fact that women, in particular those with young families, participate in the labour force in growing numbers. To date, many unions have failed to keep pace with these demographic changes. Data from the survey of organizers show that 87 per cent of campaigns studied in Ontario, and 79 per cent of those in B.C., were headed by white organizers (women or men). B.C. has a noticeably higher number of women heading up organizing drives than does Ontario, with 41 per cent of organizing campaigns headed by women in B.C. and only 22 per cent in Ontario.

Unions have also moved away from relying exclusively upon paid full-time organizing staff to recruit members. In their stead, many unions are now training rank-and-file workers from their various bargaining units as organizers. These latter are periodically assigned to organize workplaces, on a volunteer basis or, most often, with time off the job paid by the union. Once the organizing drive is complete, these organizers return to their respective workplaces.

Training and hiring rank-and-file organizers have the advantage of allowing the union to deploy organizers who mirror the composition of the workforce being organized, whether on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, age or work experience. Older industrial unions have been most active in deploying this strategy.

The success of this approach is underscored by the increased rates of certification. Between 1996 and 1998, certification rates climbed from 61 per cent to 83 per cent among those organizing drives in Ontario which use workers from other bargaining units as the first point of contact between a union and a workplace being organized.

Looking for master deals

The biggest collective bargaining problem identified by unions is how to bargain effectively for multiple small and dispersed bargaining units. As unions organize more service, part-time and small workplaces, this issue takes on increasing importance.

One answer to these problems lies in co-ordinated bargaining, either at a company or sectoral level. Co-ordinated bargaining between more than one workplace cuts down costs, increases bargaining leverage and has the potential to limit competition in the labour market.

Several unions have extended the principles of master and sectoral contracts to the private service sector. Examples include the USWA negotiation of a single contract for Pinkerton’s security guards, the CAW master contract covering more than 50 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in British Columbia and the B.C. Government Employees Union’s master contract covering health care units across the province.

Yet another problem faced by unions in bargaining for small groups of workers employed by small employers is the high cost of benefits. Negotiating the purchase of individual benefits from companies such as Blue Cross and Sunlife can be prohibitively expensive for low-wage workers and small employers. The USWA found a solution to this when it negotiated dental benefits for security guards. The USWA has established dental clinics in select union halls, where, for a fraction of the actual cost, it provides basic dental care for members.

Charlotte Yates is professor at the Labour Studies Programme and Political Science Department at McMaster University in Hamilton. The above is an excerpt of her article, “Expanding labour’s horizons: union organizing and strategic change in Canada,” which appeared in the first volume of Just Labour, a new Canadian journal on work and society. For the complete version, go to www.yorku.ca/julabour/volume1/index2.htm.

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