Youthful proposition from unions

Facing declining numbers, unions try for younger members

With the percentage of unionized workers falling in Canada — from 38 per cent in 1981 to barely more than 30 per cent in 2007, according to Statistics Canada — union organizers need new recruits. One potentially lucrative source is young people.

There are both challenges and opportunities in replenishing the ranks with young people, as union density among workers 17 to 24 has dropped precipitously — almost 50 per cent from 1981 to 2004 (from 26.4 per cent to 13.6 per cent, according to Diverging Trends in Unionization, published by Statistics Canada).

Young workers have been heavily affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs, many of which are unionized. Almost one-quarter (22 per cent) of young manufacturing workers have been laid off since 2002, compared to 13 per cent of those aged 25 to 54, according to the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). And 84 per cent of young workers are in the service sector, up more than 22 per cent since the late 1970s. It’s here where a good deal of union organizing among youth has occurred.

UFCW internship program targets youth

One such effort is the United Food and Commercial Worker’s (UFCW) national Youth Internship Program (YIP). Launched in 2000, it involves 12 to 16 youth activists who take advantage of union leave provided under collective agreements to work with union representatives to learn bargaining skills and experience hands-on organizing opportunities.

As of last year, about 106 youth had participated in YIP and 30 per cent of them went on to join the union’s full-time organizing staff. The program is “amazingly successful,” says Bryan Neath, Rexdale, Ont.-based director of the UFCW’s national training and education department.

Union drives are more successful when run by people “looking like the people you want to represent,” says Neath. “The young listen to the young.”

About 40 per cent of the 450,000 workers in the retail food sector are unionized and about 40 per cent of them are 15 to 24 year olds, according the Canadian Food Industry Council.

The service sector provides a less stable working environment than manufacturing because service jobs tend to consist of low-paid, part-time or temporary work and are often lacking in benefits and stringent health and safety oversight — a union can therefore use these issues to recruit new members. However, many teenagers find their first jobs in retail but don’t expect to stay, so turnover is high and it’s hard to persuade them it’s worth the trouble of unionizing. Young people in retail are like any other group, says Neath. About 20 per cent are “right wing conservative,” 20 per cent are left-wing and 60 per cent are in the middle — not especially concerned with unions.

The number-one selling point that attracts the group in the middle to unions is the “desire for dignity and respect,” says Neath.

This can include consistency in shift scheduling and recognition by employers that schooling is important. Some collective agreements have an availability clause under which young people can go away to school and still come back to their jobs, he says. Wages are not always the main issue and since two-tier wage schedules have been around in some form or another for 30 years in the grocery sector, they are not a huge issue for the UFCW, says Neath. However, consistent, steady, part-time work is important to young workers, as well as a “clear path to full-time.”

The main obstacles to youth organizing are the “myths” about unions, such as seniority rules protecting lazy workers, he says. The UFCW also runs an outreach program — Talking Union — in high schools in Ontario and Saskatchewan, sending union members to speak to students about what unions do and what students’ rights are at work.

What the CAW is doing

The greatest problem for the CAW is gaining access to workplaces to talk about how unions can be helpful not only in bargaining for scheduling protection, but for progressive wage scales and raising low wages in retail, says Angelo di Caro, CAW’s Toronto-based youth liaison officer.

Union concern about health and safety is an issue that could attract younger workers as retail employers often overlook them because “few resources and little training are given to workers if they aren’t going to stay around,” says di Caro, and employees end up “doing things they shouldn’t do.”

The main problem in organizing is not an anti-union mentality but fear the company may shut down or move, or hesitation about the unions’ ability to deal with retail sector issues, he says. Employers can easily get rid of troublesome union organizers since part-time employment in retail means management can “cut the hours of anyone who rocks the boat,” says di Caro.

There is also the revolving-door nature of retail employment, resulting in workers who “don’t feel close to their jobs,” says di Caro.

One of the solutions, similar to the UFCW’s intern program, has been to encourage young activists to establish young worker committees under the CAW Youth Network. Typically these are university students who work in retail but want “experience for future jobs, perhaps in human resources,” he says.

One issue young union workers are concerned about is two-tier wage scales, says di Caro. At the CAW convention last June, youth stood up in support of the contract with the Big Three, which does not contain two-tier wages.

Many young workers see such wage strategies as selling out future generations and “doing the same work for less money and fewer benefits and workplace protections doesn’t improve morale,” he says.

Lorna Harris is assistant editor of CLV Reporters, a sister publication to Canadian HR Reporter that looks at labour relations. For more information visit

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