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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.

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.

 

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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.

“The only way you can go on strike in this country today is if you’re faster than Lisa Raitt,” says veteran B.C. labour operative Bill Tieleman. He’s referring, of course, to the federal Conservative Labour minister who in 2011 and 2012 set governmental speed records legislating CP Rail, Air Canada and Canada Post employees back to work. “Labour relations today is based on the ability to affect public opinion,” Tieleman says. “It’s no longer about withdrawal of service.” Indeed, Statistics Canada calculates that person-days lost to strikes and lockouts declined by almost 87% between 1980 and 2010. Even in the labour stronghold of British Columbia, the once-militant BC Federation of Labour has accepted a series of pre-emptive orders restricting strikes and job actions.

Those who do strike do so at their peril, as the Canadian Union of Public Employees discovered in Toronto. Public resentment over the garbage that piled up in parks during the 2009 strike helped catapult the notorious Rob Ford into the mayor’s chair. In an administration dogged by controversy, one of Ford’s clearest victories has been to contract out a large number of garbage-collecting jobs that had belonged to CUPE members. The public outcry over this was notable by its absence.

So, the most successful unions have had to find other points of leverage. In Vancouver, for example, UNITE HERE doesn’t strike—or at least it hasn’t struck a major hotel since 2000. And yet, Local 40 president Jim Pearson says the union has concluded a series of agreements that have improved the position of its members, all by using a very simple strategy. “All the companies we deal with put a lot of energy into developing and protecting their brand,” Pearson says. “So anything we do that is damaging to that is very effective.”

What UNITE HERE does is often akin to street theatre. It picks a hotel with a prominent location and organizes weekly demonstrations. Room attendants take to the street, describing to passersby—and reporters—the worst parts of their workdays. On one recent occasion, Local 40 invited some local politicians to “job shadow” attendants for a day. Pearson says the staff loved the show—and the hotel hated it.

Not every campaign is given to that kind of staging. The 2006 strike at the Ekati diamond mine in the Northwest Territories looked like one that could never be won, says Dave Thompson of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. PSAC, while not a traditional “mining” union, is the biggest union in the NWT and, Ekati workers gambled, their best hope for winning a first-contract fight with the mine’s owner, multinational giant BHP Billiton.

When it came time to walk off the job, “There was nowhere to even set up a picket line,” says Thompson, who worked on the campaign. The mine is 300 kilometres north of Yellowknife and, for most of the year, can only be reached on the company plane. Employees also tended to fly in from points all over the map, so again, there was no available choke point.

Ekati is also highly mechanized. Having organized 400 of the 1,200 employees and contractors, PSAC still couldn’t bring operations to a standstill. And even if that had been possible, BHP could have easily waited the union out. Diamonds don’t rot in the ground and there is enough slack in the market to accommodate a decline in supply. So the union wasn’t surprised, after more than a year of trying to negotiate a contract, that it was pushed to strike in early April, and was still not surprised when BHP hadn’t budged by the beginning of June.

But everything changed on June 13. That’s the day the union ran ads in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal decrying Canada’s “dirty diamonds” and calling out BHP for using strikebreakers. It was a direct attack on one of the Canadian mine’s principal sales pitches: that its sparkly products were untainted by human-rights abuses associated with diamonds from Africa. The phone started ringing from around the world. Media from Antwerp, Israel, South Africa and Singapore—“everywhere where somebody cares about diamonds”—were calling for interviews, Thompson says. “We had an agreement in two weeks.”

The best part for PSAC is that once the company understood the union had leverage, it came to the table and has stayed there. “We’ve negotiated two new agreements since—and they’re good agreements,” Thompson says.

Union leaders like Pearson recognize that “brand” cuts both ways—using it as a lever against companies won’t be of much use if the union’s own brand is not up to snuff.

So, as a “56-year-old white guy,” Pearson counts himself an imperfect labour spokesperson. Some 60% of the members of his UNITE HERE unit are women and nearly half belong to visible minorities. “The next person in this job should more accurately reflect our membership,” he says flatly.

Pearson makes the argument for reasons of strategy as well as equity. “When it’s me or [BC Federation of Labour president] Jim Sinclair standing up defending labour, the public just turns off,” Pearson says. They just look like more well-fed white guys protecting their privilege. “It’s a lot harder to dismiss a hotel housekeeper who spends every day breaking her back changing rooms.”

Tieleman takes this branding discussion a step further, suggesting (to the horror of some in the labour movement) that unions are themselves a kind of free-market entity. “Unions are in the business of representing people,” he says, stressing the word “business.” Unions—the organizations themselves—are part of what we now understand as “the service industry.”

And to succeed—to get back on track—they have to be a “full-service” player, says the CLC’s Georgetti, who adds that union leaders can’t just drop in at contract time: “You have to be responsive to your members all the time. Otherwise, they just start looking at you like an insurance company: ‘I pay dues in case I get fired or there’s a strike.’” And no one feels particularly attached to their insurance company.

 

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As for the other piece—the traditional job of organizing the unorganized—the labour movement’s targets are fairly obvious: white-collar workplaces and the service sector. PSAC illustrates the point.

Like many public-sector unions, PSAC is fighting off retrenchment. Thompson, who is now an organizer in B.C., says he spends much of his time defending contracts or trying to reorganize workers whose jobs have been contracted out. The aggressive privatization at Vancouver International Airport alone has created a revolving door through which he himself must keep passing in an effort to reclaim members that PSAC thought it had already organized.

But while PSAC membership in B.C. has slipped, from 18,900 in 2009 to 17,900 in 2012, the national count, at 180,000, is growing. This is largely because, over the last five years, PSAC has added 20,000 members in the post-secondary education sector—post-doctoral researchers, teaching and research assistants, support staff, part-time faculty and student employees.

One of the point people in that success is MaryAnne Laurico, who got involved as a student at Queen’s University in Kingston. Like Daniel Bastien, she wasn’t born or raised a firebrand. A Toronto-born PhD candidate, she was (like most graduate students) just trying to cover her tuition and some of her expenses by working as a teaching assistant.

Depending on your point of view, TAs are either the luckiest or the most vulnerable members of a big-university population. By distinguishing themselves as among the most promising undergrads, they win the right to continue their studies and to perform relevant work—teaching in their chosen field. For this, at Queen’s, they get a funding package of $18,500.

Laurico says that if you were to ask most TAs what they thought of this deal (and she did, dozens of times), their usual first reaction would be, “The working conditions are great!”

Still, in 2008, Laurico got caught up in a PSAC organizing drive. It was fun. There were big events—barbecues on campus—and the conversation was all about being part of what Laurico calls “this big movement.” But the campaign failed, as had every other TA organizing drive on the campus.

But by the time that happened, Laurico was no longer convinced that the working conditions were all that fabulous. In 2009, she took a position as a PSAC organizer and kicked off a new drive. On nights and weekends, in coffee shops, between library stacks or at kitchen tables in the student ghetto, she interviewed TAs. Were their working conditions good? Yes. Had they ever been bullied? Well, sometimes. Were they paid regularly? Not always. Had their contracts or duties ever been changed mid-semester? Yes. Laurico and other organizers collected a host of complaints, which they used to prepare “Rave Cards” identifying the most common grievances. Then they distributed the cards to other TAs, finding an increasing number of willing takers.

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.

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.

 

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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.”

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