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Air Canada baggage handlers return to work after a wildcat strike at Pierre Trudeau airport Friday, March 23, 2012 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Air Canada baggage handlers return to work after a wildcat strike at Pierre Trudeau airport Friday, March 23, 2012 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The sorry state of our unions Add to ...

“We haven't reached out enough to engage with other people,” says Paul Moist, president of CUPE. “And if we don't argue for CPP to be expanded, who will? All those workers in lousy jobs don't have the resources to argue for it.”

But just as fundamental to union survival is the need to win over new members to the movement – particularly among recent immigrants and young people. “Unions are facing a choice,” Mr. Cartwright says. “They can either engage the new work force as it changes or go with those who are a part of the power structure of the last generation.”

He points to successful campaign to sign up service employees at Chinese-language seniors' homes, led by a Filipina organizer who'd won her spurs organizing her compatriots in the growing union domain of long-term-care facilities. “This speaks to the bridges that unions rooted in new immigrant communities can build,” he says.

Immigrant communities can form a natural grouping – the Painters Union in Toronto was able to sign up several hundred Turkish stucco workers after partnering with influential imams who saw the union could improve workers' lives.

In the new economy, such large and cohesive groupings aren't the norm: To reach more a more transient, independent work force, union leaders look to models like ACTRA, the performers union that negotiates rates, conditions and benefits for what are essentially freelance and itinerant workers.

Getting through to young people remains the biggest challenge. The decline of traditional private-sector industries means that younger workers are often shut out completely.

“I was a local president at 28,” says CEP president David Coles. “Now in the same kind of factories and plants that people like me came out of, it takes 30 years of fricking seniority to get a job.”

Being excluded builds resentment among the minimum-waged young. But so do the two-tier systems that desperate-to-survive unions construct to ensure their survival – limiting wages and pension benefits available to new hires, for example.

“It seems like a great idea if you're trying to get an agreement, because those new workers don't vote,” says Mr. Gindin. “But it's bad if you're trying to build a union since it alienates the very people you'll need to run the organization some day.”

Unions, particularly in the private sector, are a movement of the old, with a nostalgic attachment to a more glorious past. “I don't see that much hostility to unions among young people,” says Pradeep Kumar, professor emeritus of industrial relations at Queen's University. “But they certainly don't get excited by what unions do. These are people who don't obey authority, and they tend to find unions very condescending and patronizing.”

In this troubled union world, the stylish young woman handing out leaflets and parrying the questions of passers-by on a strike-choked Toronto sidewalk is something of a godsend.

The city's library workers, quite unexpectedly, have gone on strike. According to the anti-union stereotype, this should be the ugly face of modern unionism, public-sector holdouts against municipal budget-paring who don't realize the real world has moved on.

And yet 27-year-old Diana in picket-line heels and black leather jacket (new to the contentious world of union struggles, she's reluctant to give her last name) is winning over the waverers.

“Do you just want higher wages?” an older woman demands. “Isn't it all about your salary?”

“No,” answers the young librarian. “It's about providing services to people and keeping what we have. They want to get rid of professional librarians. The quality of the libraries will go down.”

The older woman takes a flyer and walks away, possibly mollified, certainly better informed about the strikers' position.

Strikes may represent old-style unionism, but Diana at least seems content and engaged. “If you want to get something,” she says, talking over the repetitive bull-horn chants, “and if you want to be heard, then you have to fight for what you believe in.”

John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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