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Air Canada baggage handlers return to work after a wildcat strike at Pierre Trudeau airport Friday, March 23, 2012 in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

So it has come to this: Even union leaders are losing faith in the power of their unions.

"There used to be a time when we had great respect from the public," says Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress. "But we've lost that. There's this notion that unions are just out for themselves and not for society. You get that label hung on you, and you have to work to get rid of it."

Or as Mark Ferguson, president of a Toronto branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees put it more bluntly in a recent e-mail to a fellow CUPE member who had complained about a failure to win concessions: "The public hates unions right now." That simmering hatred turned visceral early Friday when a man spat on a female Air Canada employee during a wildcat walkout at Toronto's Pearson airport.

It's a precarious moment for the labour movement. Next week's federal and Ontario budgets will bring thousands of job losses. British Columbia's 30,000 nurses are bargaining and the province's teachers appear headed for a showdown with the government over back-to-work legislation. Toronto's 23,000 inside workers are in a strike position. Meanwhile, the very survival of unions' collective-bargaining powers is at stake.

Witness the Harper government's pre-empting of the Air Canada pilots' right to strike, calling it damaging to the economy, as well as March-break travel plans. "In that case, you can't ever have a strike ... because every strike has an economic impact," says Buzz Hargrove, former president of the Canadian Auto Workers.

In a hostile environment, unions are beginning to realize that they must alter both their tactics and their attitudes.

"A major defeat is staring us in the face," says Sam Gindin, a former top union adviser who holds the Packer Chair in Social Justice at York University. "We have to change how unions function."

Leading Canadian unions are echoing this dissatisfaction and have undertaken an unprecedented exercise in self-criticism and renewal – the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union is in talks with the CAW to create a new private-sector super-union designed to reinvent the labour movement.

"If unions do not change, and quickly, we will steadily follow U.S. unions into continuing decline," states a discussion paper ominously entitled A Moment of Truth for Canadian Unions.

The unions' motivation to reinvigorate their faltering movement is powerful. Private-sector unions have been unable to halt their steady slide toward oblivion, as traditional manufacturing jobs disappear in a fiercely competitive globalized economy and the growing categories of young service-industry workers and post-industrial independent job-seekers prove impervious to old-style unionization.

Public-sector unions, meanwhile, are on the defensive: In their upcoming confrontations with deficit-slashing governments – the Conference Board of Canada has predicted an increased level of labour conflict this year – they stand to lose the battle for taxpayers' hearts and minds that sees them portrayed as out-of-touch elitists mocking hard-pressed taxpayers with their job security, regular hours and gold-plated pensions.

The hard times that followed the 2008 economic meltdown have fostered class warfare, naturally enough. But much of the hostility, contrary to the usual left-wing analysis, has been directed at the perks and presumptions of organized labour.

"There's been a change in the paradigm," says Mr. Georgetti. "People used to aspire to belong to a union to get the benefits and be well off. Now the aspiration is, 'I'd be happy to take those benefits away from someone because I don't have them.'"

The anti-union voices are vocal and influential, even on the CBC. Entrepreneur Kevin O'Leary's bully pulpit on the public broadcaster inspires fear and outrage among union leaders, who recognize his Don Cherry-like power to win over the masses when he opines that unions are evil and their members should be "thrown in jail."

Influence on NDP waning

As the New Democratic Party meets in Toronto today to select the new Opposition Leader, it should be a heady time to be a union member. But the modern, broadly based NDP is not automatically or instinctively the party of working people, even as its leadership candidates have continued to chase union endorsements and the ready-made organizing abilities that come with them. Electability in a country that has growing reservations about the power of unions often means playing down labour's special place and influence.

Even candidate Peggy Nash, a former lead negotiator for the CAW, acknowledges the problems posed by public discontent.

"Unions are facing a difficult climate. There's an unease out there, and some of the biggest challenges relate to the tremendous insecurity people are feeling in the workplace."

The insecurity is understand- able, but hardly confined to the non-union sector. If anything, union leaders and members are more anxious as they watch their historic power and privileges being eroded by governments and corporations that sense this is the time to attack.

For unions to dictate terms in the labour market, they need to have a strong presence in the private sector. But that's exactly where they have declined, to the point where they cease to set the standard for wages and working conditions. Instead of representing the gold standard that all workers aim for, unions become the symbol of uncompetitive greed and outmoded status.

That reversal in status was highlighted in the labour showdown preceding Caterpillar Inc.'s shutdown of its locomotive plant in London, Ont., when unionized workers refused to accept a 50-per-cent pay cut – a few days before, Caterpillar had reported a $4.9-billion profit. Remaining competitive in the global marketplace was the multinational's avowed goal, and if Ontario wouldn't play along, somebody else would: Indiana, which had just passed "right-to-work" legislation to discourage union organization and keep costs down.

"It used to be the unionized sector that set the pattern," says Gregor Murray, professor of industrial relations at the University of Montreal. "Now we see clearly in the Caterpillar case that the non-union sector in Indiana becomes the benchmark."

In a globalized economy, this is known as a location tournament, in which the lowest costs win out over the kind of community values and obligations that tied old-economy companies to their company towns.

It's a battle Canadian unions are not in a position to win.

"We shouldn't kid ourselves," says CAW president Ken Lewenza. "The multinational companies we deal with can move capital from one jurisdiction to another with no impediment."

Unions have talked about trying to catch up and become more powerful global entities through the International Trade Union Confederation, especially since the application of Canada's foreign investment laws appears highly arbitrary.

"A lot of these companies are larger than some nation-states," says Mr. Georgetti. "They have too much power: They need to make a profit but they don't have a structure that lends itself well to the public interest."

Rebranding the union movement and reclaiming the messaging from anti-unionists isn't going to be easy. Stating the union's case directly to the public through billboards, advertisements and social media is the preferred tactic these days.

But some hard-core unionists think modern technology is less productive than the old fashioned tools of social unionism: conversations around the table, meetings in ethnic and community halls, reaching out to a wider range of disaffected groups.

"It's not enough for union leader to send out tweets in an uncertain world," says John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Regional Labour Council.

Mr. Gindin is sharply skeptical about the union's appetite for imaginative change.

"The auto workers should have taken over the Caterpillar plant," he says. "You don't get anywhere by putting out a press release saying Caterpillar's closure is a bad thing – you take it over and force these problems onto the agenda."

Caught flat-footed by the rise of the Occupy movement – which revealed the attention-getting power of audacious action – union leaders are belatedly recognizing that they need to build support beyond the boundaries of union membership. The historic model of a collective union identity – auto workers working in the same plant, living in the same close community, sharing the same group values – is dead or dying, with what survives perceived as isolated and privileged.

And so, says Prof. Murray, "unions have to change their repertoire, and develop new ways of acting out of these new conflicts: not just 'Let's have a strike,' but connecting with people in a broader set of debates."

That was the historic mission of the union movement that helped shape the Canada Pension Plan, medicare and health and safety legislation – a legacy unions have been living off a little too smugly ever since, even as the social contract of the post-war prosperity years has devolved into the harsher survival strategies of post-Thatcher neoliberalism.

"We haven't reached out enough to engage with other people," says Paul Moist, president of CUPE. "And if we don't argue for CPP to be expanded, who will? All those workers in lousy jobs don't have the resources to argue for it."

But just as fundamental to union survival is the need to win over new members to the movement – particularly among recent immigrants and young people. "Unions are facing a choice," Mr. Cartwright says. "They can either engage the new work force as it changes or go with those who are a part of the power structure of the last generation."

He points to successful campaign to sign up service employees at Chinese-language seniors' homes, led by a Filipina organizer who'd won her spurs organizing her compatriots in the growing union domain of long-term-care facilities. "This speaks to the bridges that unions rooted in new immigrant communities can build," he says.

Immigrant communities can form a natural grouping – the Painters Union in Toronto was able to sign up several hundred Turkish stucco workers after partnering with influential imams who saw the union could improve workers' lives.

In the new economy, such large and cohesive groupings aren't the norm: To reach more a more transient, independent work force, union leaders look to models like ACTRA, the performers union that negotiates rates, conditions and benefits for what are essentially freelance and itinerant workers.

Getting through to young people remains the biggest challenge. The decline of traditional private-sector industries means that younger workers are often shut out completely.

"I was a local president at 28," says CEP president David Coles. "Now in the same kind of factories and plants that people like me came out of, it takes 30 years of fricking seniority to get a job."

Being excluded builds resentment among the minimum-waged young. But so do the two-tier systems that desperate-to-survive unions construct to ensure their survival – limiting wages and pension benefits available to new hires, for example.

"It seems like a great idea if you're trying to get an agreement, because those new workers don't vote," says Mr. Gindin. "But it's bad if you're trying to build a union since it alienates the very people you'll need to run the organization some day."

Unions, particularly in the private sector, are a movement of the old, with a nostalgic attachment to a more glorious past. "I don't see that much hostility to unions among young people," says Pradeep Kumar, professor emeritus of industrial relations at Queen's University. "But they certainly don't get excited by what unions do. These are people who don't obey authority, and they tend to find unions very condescending and patronizing."

In this troubled union world, the stylish young woman handing out leaflets and parrying the questions of passers-by on a strike-choked Toronto sidewalk is something of a godsend.

The city's library workers, quite unexpectedly, have gone on strike. According to the anti-union stereotype, this should be the ugly face of modern unionism, public-sector holdouts against municipal budget-paring who don't realize the real world has moved on.

And yet 27-year-old Diana in picket-line heels and black leather jacket (new to the contentious world of union struggles, she's reluctant to give her last name) is winning over the waverers.

"Do you just want higher wages?" an older woman demands. "Isn't it all about your salary?"

"No," answers the young librarian. "It's about providing services to people and keeping what we have. They want to get rid of professional librarians. The quality of the libraries will go down."

The older woman takes a flyer and walks away, possibly mollified, certainly better informed about the strikers' position.

Strikes may represent old-style unionism, but Diana at least seems content and engaged. "If you want to get something," she says, talking over the repetitive bull-horn chants, "and if you want to be heard, then you have to fight for what you believe in."

John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer.