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Young, frustrated workers begin to listen to the union pitch Add to ...

Debra Moore is on the front lines of an upswing in union interest among younger workers.

This year, eight of the baristas at one of her coffee shops in Halifax surprised her by joining Local 2 of the Service Employees International Union. The move came with some controversy: Two employees claimed they were fired for their involvement, and labour leaders organized a protest outside the store.

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The unionization drive at Just Us! Coffee Roasters is emblematic of a labour movement that is making some inroads into typically low-wage, part-time, non-unionized workplaces. And Ms. Moore says she understands what’s behind it.

“I don’t hear them focused on money, I don’t hear them focused on benefits,” says the founder of Just Us!, a co-operative with cafes across Nova Scotia. “I hear them focused on, ‘Well, we’ve been to university, we’ve got stuff to contribute. How can we do that? I hear, too, that they feel vulnerable and the union gives them somebody behind them.

“Up until the last few years the retail world was more about people who wanted part-time work, who wanted transient work. That was what that industry has been built on but of course that’s not our reality.”

The slow recovery from the last recession has been hard on young workers. The unemployment rate for workers 15 to 24 is still elevated -- it was 13.8 per cent in June -- and it is common for today’s twentysomething to stitch together multiple part-time jobs.

Sabrina Butt, 26, is a recently unionized sales associate at a Toronto-area H & M store. She is among the cohort of young workers entering the labour market in a soft economy, looking at their after-school retail and service jobs as long-term employment, and hunkering down.

“You come in thinking that it’s just convenient with your school schedule and so on and so forth but I started when I was in college, and I’m still there,” she said.

The proportion of Canadian workers belonging to labour unions declined considerably since the 1980s, but has remained stable since the late 1990s, at slightly less than one-third of the work force. In 2012, the rate of unionization went up slightly, to 31.5 per cent from 31.2 per cent the year before. Part-time jobs have been cited as the source of recent unionized job gains.

“Retail and service is a huge chunk of our economy and they’re not the sort of short-term, high-turnover type jobs that they were for the past 40 years,” Karen Foster, a fellow at Saint Mary’s University who has studied youth employment trends.

“There was a time when you could be a shoe salesman and support a family on that income and you had that level of security -- so it’s not an entirely new idea to make these jobs ‘good jobs’. But it is new compared to the past 40 years or so.”

Virtually any occupation can be unionized, so long as the workers do not have any managerial powers, said Kevin Shimmin, a national representative of private sector union UFCW Canada, which represents workers in places such as H & M, The Bay, Future Shop, Loblaw and Sobeys.

“I think the retail sector is where cutting edge and innovative organizing will happen for many years to come. It is a sector dominated by precarious, part-time jobs, with little or no security, low pay and often not enough hours. At the same time, the work force is young, highly educated and looking at organizing in creative ways,” said Mr. Shimmin.

Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association, said she believes that a stigma of unionization is now being lifted by young workers across the country as they become frustrated with a job market that leaves them vulnerable or insecure, with part-time work.

“There’s a power imbalance between precarious workers and employers – one that is a lot more stark than with full-time workers and for that reason precarious workers in many ways they need a union even more,” said Ms. Seaborn.

At WestJet Airlines Ltd., the Calgary-based airline where the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has said a handful of flight attendants are interested in unionization, the company has had what it calls a pro-active communication team (PACT) in place since 1999, said spokeswoman Brie Thorsteinson Ogle.

“It’s a mutually engaging process that has been successful for 14 years, so we trust the process works. The fact that we have not had to rely on a third party speaks to our ability to collaborate, and it is our opinion that the interests of WestJet and WestJetters are best served by an internal, employee-elected association,” said Ms. Ogle.

Ms. Butt believes that unionization is the key to raising the respect level of her industry. This summer she also helped organize another group of Toronto-area retail employees at a Sirens clothing store in Brampton, who in July became the latest to join UFCW Canada Local 175.

“Having Sirens on board with the union is a huge step,” she said. “It shows that there can be young leaders and not all hope is lost because these are young girls in their twenties and they want to make a change in their workplace and that fear didn’t stop them. They were able to take that step.”

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