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(Grant Harder)
(Grant Harder)

Do unions have a future? Add to ...

Laurico presents the experience as both counterintuitive and inevitable. It was hard to build union support among a population drawn overwhelmingly from the families of professionals and managers—the upper-middle-class Canadians who typically send their progeny to prestigious schools like Queen’s. But as governments have squeezed funding to universities, and as universities have grown more resolutely focused on the bottom line, the stress was bound to concentrate somewhere. Teaching assistants, whom Laurico describes as both “clients” and “employees” of the university, were an obvious pressure point, a group of people who could be directed, by professors and administrators alike, to pick up the slack. Queen’s pushed and, through the efforts of Laurico and others, a union finally found a way to push back. PSAC Local 901 was certified in 2010.

 

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The second union target area is the service industry, a category that sprawls from hotel, retail, food services, domestic and private-sector health care workers to administrative staff in the financial industry. From an organizing perspective, there are two great things about the service industry: It’s the fastest-growing employment sector in the country; and in most cases, you can’t outsource the jobs to Mumbai.

If UNITE HERE is a master of 21st-century union tactics, it also recognizes that its success depends on upholding the historic union role of fighting for the rights of the least privileged. In Toronto, UNITE HERE Local 75 has been fighting the Novotel hotel chain, which has been resisting unionization with mixed success. Novotel’s efforts were sufficiently clumsy in its Mississauga hotel, the next location over from Daniel Bastien’s former workplace, that the Ontario Labour Relations Board issued a highly unusual automatic certification last October, and ordered the hotel to pay three years of back pay to Rekha Sharma, a young employee whom it had frozen out after she got involved in the certification drive.

The Novotel where Bastien worked is still not organized, but the union is in it for the long haul. “You can’t start a drive and then walk away,” he says. “We don’t want to leave any workers behind, especially those who have stuck their neck out.”

From a union perspective, the hotel industry is actually a bright spot in the service industry. Toronto hotels have a union density of 75%. Among the half-dozen unions involved, UNITE HERE is the largest player, with 47 hotels in the GTA.

The result, Bastien argues, is that hotel employment in Toronto is pretty good overall. Most of the jobs are full-time and “even the non-union hotels have to pay higher wages to stay competitive” with the rates that have been won by UNITE HERE. Bastien has friends who work at hotels in Alberta, where the picture is low-density, low wages, no benefits—and high turnover. Toronto, on the other hand, has a comparatively stable workforce, an obvious fringe benefit for employers. “Hotel jobs are good here,” Bastien says. They pay enough that “you can raise a family. That’s what the union is fighting for.”

If unions are to succeed beyond the hotel sector, however, they will have to make more gains not only in the trenches—in the sometimes rough-and-tumble world where the likes of Bastien and Laurico have set up shop—but also in the courts and legislatures of the country.

In the trenches, one of the issues is size: Traditional big employers are easy to organize and easy to service. The CLC’s Georgetti says that union density remains relatively high among employers with 500 workers or more. But those large employers are exactly the kind of manufacturing plants and resource-sector processors that have been fleeing the country in large numbers. And among what’s left over, Georgetti says, “we have no density at all [with workplaces] under 40.”

What’s worse, a lot of the “small employers” are actually storefront retail operators that are owned by huge, deep-pocketed (and frequently anti-organized labour) chains. So, labour has a big challenge wrapped in a little package—or a host of little packages, because the low-paid, poorly protected service workers at many of the largest employers are dispersed across hundreds, even thousands, of locations.

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