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About 5000 teachers and education workers gathered outside the provincial legislature at Queens Park on Aug. 28 2012 to protest against a controversial bill that would impose wage freezes on Ontario teachers. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
About 5000 teachers and education workers gathered outside the provincial legislature at Queens Park on Aug. 28 2012 to protest against a controversial bill that would impose wage freezes on Ontario teachers. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Labour

The weakening state of Canadian labour unions Add to ...

Although four million Canadians are members of unions, organized labour is nonetheless facing shrinking coverage across Canada’s work force.

Unions are coping with growing pressure from employers and governments to accept wage freezes and reduced benefits, while they are also being asked to become active partners in boosting company productivity and improving work processes.

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Labour leaders are confronting growing hostility about their role from both governments and broad swaths of the non-unionized public. In this difficult and complex climate, we talked to leaders in labour, business and education about their take on the challenges and new roles facing unions this Labour Day.

Ken Georgetti

President of the Canadian Labour Congress

Ken Georgetti doesn’t like to say that unions are shrinking as a proportion of Canada’s work force.

Instead, the head of the CLC – an umbrella group for unions representing 3.3 million Canadian workers – prefers to say the work force “is growing faster than we’re organizing.”

But the more optimistic spin cannot change the fact that 17.4 per cent of private-sector workers in Canada belonged to unions in 2011, down from 21.3 per cent in 1997, offering telling evidence of a long, slow decline in the scope and power of unions over the past 15 years.

Mr. Georgetti is far from defeated, however, blaming the slide on the fact that large manufacturers in Canada have slashed jobs over the past decade – almost all of them unionized positions – while new-economy jobs in sectors such as technology and professional services are much less likely to be union positions.

He is optimistic there is room for unions to grow in new sectors, especially if workers grow more discontented with slowing wage growth, growing income disparity and declining public services.

“The desire to join unions is not any lower than it was before, but it’s much more of a challenge to organize a work force of 30 or 40 people than one of 500 or 600,” he says.

And he believes there is strong evidence to sell the merits of unions to employees who have no experience with unionization and are skeptical about what it can accomplish.

“This is how I sell the union movement,” Mr. Georgetti says. “Do you want your kids to earn $600,000 more in their lifetime? And if the answer is ‘yes,’ then all they have to do is join a union. The union advantage will give the average worker in Canada $600,000 more in cash – that’s not benefits, just wages – over their lifetime.”

He acknowledges, however, that unions have to overcome “outdated” public perceptions that they create rigid work forces where strict job classifications allow little flexibility and seniority trumps skill and work accomplishments.

“I think there’s been an image challenge that the right wing, to this point, has had better success with than we have,” he says. “We have to spend some time on that issue, no doubt about it.”

Ken Lewenza

National president of the Canadian Auto Workers union

No “myth” about unions appears to rile Ken Lewenza more than the perception that unionized workers are inflexible and uncreative.

The head of the 200,000-member CAW jumps to the defence of his members, arguing they deal daily with demands to expand their skills, learn new technologies and adapt to growing automation.

“If you talk to someone who has never worked in a union facility, they actually think workers have their hands tied,” he says. “They talk like it’s the fifties or the sixties and you have these airtight roles and an electrician can’t fix a water fountain without a pipe fitter. It’s ridiculous to hear these kinds of comments.”

Mr. Lewenza argues unions today are being forced by economics and global competitiveness to focus on the same issues of productivity as employers.

“If somebody would have said in 1940 or 1950, ‘Is the union concerned with productivity,’ the answer would have been ‘no,’<TH>” he says. “That wasn’t our priority ... But today we know that a productive work force is normally rewarded better than a non-productive work force.”

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