Compared to their American cousins, Canadian unions have enjoyed a few successes in organizing these workplaces, including at both McDonald’s and Walmart. But those footholds have proven difficult to hold. When a Quebec union organized a McDonald’s in Montreal in 2000, the franchisee responded by shutting it down. After Walmart saw workers at its Jonquière store unionize in 2005—the first in North America to do so—the outcome was the same.
This is one of the challenges that precipitated the CEP-CAW merger—an ambitious effort to build a union that is big enough to stand up to big, unco-operative employers. There are two issues here. First, many of the companies that are in the business of fighting unions have deep pockets; Walmart or McDonald’s can wait out a small union in the course of a labour battle. Second, in the rare event that a union actually organizes a small operation, it is expensive to service. A local with just 12 or 15 members might consume the same amount of a business agent’s time as one with 50 or 100 members. And low-wage employees can’t be asked to contribute very much in union dues. Even the union officials who don’t want to think of themselves as “businesses” understand how hard it is to maintain a union with that kind of a business model.
In both respects, the new union will be better positioned to take on large companies that have proved to be such a difficult challenge, says the CEP’s Dave Coles. “We still have big locals that don’t mind paying more than their share” to support brethren in a fight. And improving the ability to organize small workplaces is “an absolute cornerstone of the new project,” Coles adds. “We have to make unions relevant in the community again”—a community concentrated in storefront retail.
The other battlefield will most certainly be the courts and legislatures, where the pendulum has been swinging away from union rights and toward restoring a freer hand to employers. The best evidence of this arises mostly south of the border in the increasingly popular “right-to-work” legislation that prohibits closed union shops or any labour contract that requires all workers to pay union dues. These are now in force in at least 23 states—and those jurisdictions have been attracting almost a third of all new manufacturing jobs.
In Canada, pro-management governments are backing away from legislation that had imposed first contracts in cases where organizers had been able to get 50% (or sometimes more than 60%) of employees to sign union cards. The new laws force the union to also clear the hurdle of a secret ballot after the original organizing drive.
Labour leaders say that turns organizing into a contact sport. The problem, says BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair, is this: “How do you make it possible for people in small workplaces to join a union? In 2013, it’s not a right; it’s a risk”—in part because it is so easy for employers to fire and blacklist anyone who gets a pro-union reputation.
Traditionally, labour organizations have boasted unreservedly about what Georgetti calls the “union advantage,” which is most obviously defined by the gap between what you make in a union job compared to a non-union job. On average, Georgetti says it is $7 an hour or $600,000 over a lifetime.
What may be more helpful for the movement’s future is another face of the union advantage. A recent Harvard University study showed that the decline of organized labour in the U.S. accounts for between a fifth and a third of the yawning increase in income inequality that is one of the country’s most crippling problems.
For young activists, that shows what’s at stake. “I’m concerned about the direction that Canada’s heading,” says Bastien. “So many people my age are struggling for jobs, working contract-to-contract, or going to grad school to avoid the labour market. And that won’t change until the rebirth of the labour movement.
“We need good jobs you can build a life on.”