Before the complexion of unionism went civil-servant, workers in the private sector tended to aspire to union membership. But now, non-union members of the public are more likely to resent union protections, especially when it seems that civil servants are getting fat (and retiring happy) on taxes paid by the unorganized. The workforce is polarizing into a public-sector side that has ample benefits, job security and pensions, and a private-sector side that does not.
These factors have cascaded into a crisis that at least some union leaders recognize as life-threatening. “The trade union movement in Canada faces an enormous and historic moment of truth,” says a discussion paper that proposed the CEP/CAW tie-up. “If unions do not change, and quickly, we will steadily follow U.S. unions into continuing decline.”
The plan, as always with unions, has to do with organizing workers who aren’t unionized. But there’s a broader game at play, too.
Last summer, as the sun set over a host of lightly burnt bodies on English Bay Beach, I watched as Stephen Von Sychowski, chair of the British Columbia Federation of Labour’s Young Workers’ Committee, brought a team of orange-vested activists to work the crowd at the Celebration of Light, Vancouver’s annual international fireworks competition.
Roughly 100,000 revellers had jammed onto the city’s busiest patch of sand and grass for a party, not a union rally. But Von Sychowski’s team was undeterred. The boldest campaigners were both young women: Bonnie Hammond, a bus-company employee and member of Canadian Auto Workers Local 114, and Kassandra Cordero, who’s on staff at the BC Federation of Labour. They waded audaciously into the crowd, stepping between blankets, waving a clipboard and asking who’d like to sign a petition to support “Grant’s Law.”
This is the figurative foot in the door. Grant De Patie was a 24-year-old Maple Ridge, B.C., gas station attendant who was dragged to his death in 2005 after he challenged someone who was driving off without having paid for $12.30 worth of gas. Most Vancouverites know the story; many supported the law that was passed in De Patie’s name setting strict rules for young people working the graveyard shift in retail environments. And many more are upset now that the B.C. government has backed away from the toughest provisions, once again allowing people to work alone with scant protection.
The fireworks crowd divided into the uninterested and the enthused. In the search for signatures, “It’s unusual to be refused outright,” says Von Sychowski. “It’s not hard to support this issue.” While some people clearly didn’t want to be hassled, a huge number called out, asking to sign the petition. It seems that everyone who hasn’t personally worked at a McDonald’s or a 7-Eleven has a friend or family member who has. And when any of these signatories showed more than a passing interest, the campaigners started digging deeper.
It’s a bait-and-switch, true, but a relatively benign one. Hammond’s favourite conversation starter is child labour. “Do you think it’s legal for 12-year-olds to work in B.C.?” she asks. Most people don’t. But it is legal (with a parent’s signature). And by the time Hammond has shared the details, many young people have signed up to join EARN, the Employee Action & Rights Network—a labour organization for the unorganized.
Von Sychowski, 28, was the founding chair of EARN, which the BC Federation of Labour developed to bring young workers into the fold, even if on an informal basis. “We were already campaigning on things like raising the minimum wage and increasing health and safety standards,” Von Sychowski says. “The idea was to create a network for non-union workers, to campaign on those issues and to provide assistance in cases where people’s rights had clearly been violated.”
That’s why Von Sychowski’s team stands at SkyTrain stations or wades through fireworks crowds, chatting up prospective EARN members. It’s an exercise in building relationships. In response to a suggestion that EARN looks like an old-fashioned loss leader, the free app that gets you hooked on a new piece of software, Kassandra Cordero says, “Exactly. And joining an actual union would be like getting ‘the Premium Edition.’”
This kind of campaign—one that rises above a single group’s grievance to champion concerns that span society—would probably be a good idea in any moment. But for the union movement today, it might be the best tactic left.