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(Grant Harder)
(Grant Harder)

Do unions have a future? Add to ...

Daniel Bastien’s original plan—the one that his parents liked—was to go straight to law school.

An acceptance letter already in hand, he only took the hotel server job to get him through the summer. What he expected from the North York Novotel was a little over $10 an hour and some pretty good tips. What he got was a different type of education than he’d ever imagined.

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“It was shocking to see how disrespectfully the workers were treated,” Bastien, who’s now 27, recalls. His conscience pricked, he got involved in a certification drive by the UNITE HERE union, and started signing up co-workers. “I thought it was a good idea, a good cause, and that we’d be done in three months and I could go on to law school.”

But Bastien immediately “started getting written up a lot”: Managers put a note in his file for every imagined infraction, no matter how minor (for instance, if he punched out on the time clock but didn’t also sign out). A delegation from the union went to Novotel’s human resources chief on his behalf and pointed out the illegality of targeting union organizers. The write-ups stopped—but Bastien’s sympathy for the union was just warming up.

Five years later (and “much to the chagrin of my parents”), he’s still trying to win respect for the hospitality and restaurant workers who make up the ranks of UNITE HERE. And now it’s gone from a sideline to a full-time mission; last April, he moved from waiting tables to working for the union.

Bastien is not the likeliest union organizer. He is, he says, “no red-diaper baby.” His father is a dentist who emigrated from Haiti to Canada in the 1950s to escape the Duvalier dictatorship, his mother an office manager from Belgium. “I was raised on stories of my grandfather’s house being sprayed with machine-gun fire, so I realize how lucky I am to be alive and in Canada. And I realize that not everyone has that same luck.” Which is to say that, unlike many of the recent immigrants who make up the community of hotel employees, Bastien had choices about his occupation.

Or put it this way—if the union movement in Canada has a future, it will be thanks to employers who piss off young people like Daniel Bastien.

 

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The portents, of course, are decidedly to the contrary. Private-sector union “density”—the proportion of workforce members who belong to a union in Canada—has collapsed. In 1984, it was 26%. Today, says a white paper by the soon-to-merge Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), it’s “17% and falling.” (CEP represents unionized workers at The Globe and Mail.)

Despite the numbers, union central gets huffy at suggestions of decline. “Our density is still higher than most other countries,” says Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti. And it’s also pretty close to what it was 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years ago.

But that’s only because of this: While private-sector membership has fallen off a cliff, public-sector membership has climbed to a peak. Thus the overall unionization rate today (30.2% by a federal government count) is not that far off from where it was (33.6%) in 1970. Public-sector membership had hit 72% by the mid-’80s and has stayed in that range ever since.

It’s not that unions have been doing a bad job in the private sector, says Georgetti. Polling conducted by the CLC shows that more than 80% of members are satisfied with their union’s performance. Rather, the world has shifted beneath labour’s feet. CEP president Dave Coles says the problem is “de-industrialization,” including both automation and the migration of jobs to cheaper labour markets, in the United States and overseas. “Workers didn’t run from the unions,” Coles says. “Work has run away from the workers.”

If the ability of employers to move manufacturing and clerical jobs across borders explains unions’ decline, it has also engendered other unhelpful changes. One is the wave of “right-to-work” laws sweeping through the U.S., which has been echoed by anti-union measures and rhetoric in some jurisdictions in Canada. Another is a serious souring of public sentiment. Members may see value in their union cards, but for large swaths of the public, unions have a serious image problem: They’ve gone from being the folks who brought you the weekend to being the folks who deny you the services for which you pay your taxes.

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