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About 5000 teachers and education workers gathered outside the provincial legislature at Queens Park on Aug. 28 2012 to protest against a controversial bill that would impose wage freezes on Ontario teachers.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Although four million Canadians are members of unions, organized labour is nonetheless facing shrinking coverage across Canada's work force.

Unions are coping with growing pressure from employers and governments to accept wage freezes and reduced benefits, while they are also being asked to become active partners in boosting company productivity and improving work processes.

Labour leaders are confronting growing hostility about their role from both governments and broad swaths of the non-unionized public. In this difficult and complex climate, we talked to leaders in labour, business and education about their take on the challenges and new roles facing unions this Labour Day.

Ken Georgetti

President of the Canadian Labour Congress

Ken Georgetti doesn't like to say that unions are shrinking as a proportion of Canada's work force.

Instead, the head of the CLC – an umbrella group for unions representing 3.3 million Canadian workers – prefers to say the work force "is growing faster than we're organizing."

But the more optimistic spin cannot change the fact that 17.4 per cent of private-sector workers in Canada belonged to unions in 2011, down from 21.3 per cent in 1997, offering telling evidence of a long, slow decline in the scope and power of unions over the past 15 years.

Mr. Georgetti is far from defeated, however, blaming the slide on the fact that large manufacturers in Canada have slashed jobs over the past decade – almost all of them unionized positions – while new-economy jobs in sectors such as technology and professional services are much less likely to be union positions.

He is optimistic there is room for unions to grow in new sectors, especially if workers grow more discontented with slowing wage growth, growing income disparity and declining public services.

"The desire to join unions is not any lower than it was before, but it's much more of a challenge to organize a work force of 30 or 40 people than one of 500 or 600," he says.

And he believes there is strong evidence to sell the merits of unions to employees who have no experience with unionization and are skeptical about what it can accomplish.

"This is how I sell the union movement," Mr. Georgetti says. "Do you want your kids to earn $600,000 more in their lifetime? And if the answer is 'yes,' then all they have to do is join a union. The union advantage will give the average worker in Canada $600,000 more in cash – that's not benefits, just wages – over their lifetime."

He acknowledges, however, that unions have to overcome "outdated" public perceptions that they create rigid work forces where strict job classifications allow little flexibility and seniority trumps skill and work accomplishments.

"I think there's been an image challenge that the right wing, to this point, has had better success with than we have," he says. "We have to spend some time on that issue, no doubt about it."

Ken Lewenza

National president of the Canadian Auto Workers union

No "myth" about unions appears to rile Ken Lewenza more than the perception that unionized workers are inflexible and uncreative.

The head of the 200,000-member CAW jumps to the defence of his members, arguing they deal daily with demands to expand their skills, learn new technologies and adapt to growing automation.

"If you talk to someone who has never worked in a union facility, they actually think workers have their hands tied," he says. "They talk like it's the fifties or the sixties and you have these airtight roles and an electrician can't fix a water fountain without a pipe fitter. It's ridiculous to hear these kinds of comments."

Mr. Lewenza argues unions today are being forced by economics and global competitiveness to focus on the same issues of productivity as employers.

"If somebody would have said in 1940 or 1950, 'Is the union concerned with productivity,' the answer would have been 'no,'" he says. "That wasn't our priority ... But today we know that a productive work force is normally rewarded better than a non-productive work force."

And if unions need proof, he says companies now come to them armed with reams of data about workload and output, creating a far different dynamic in negotiations.

"Everything is a statistic today, like the data that's provided today about lost time from work, or productivity per square footage. Even a custodial worker – a janitor – is measured on the square footage of the average person cleaning the average amount of dirt."

Mr. Lewenza's hope for the future of the labour movement is that it can reach out to the people most frustrated by Canada's shift into "a low-wage, insecurity economy," including young people and new graduates who are having difficulty finding good jobs.

Paul Moist

National President of CUPE

It's a difficult time to head a public-sector union as governments throughout Canada look to slash budgets, but Paul Moist says government workers shouldn't have to pay for a global economic crisis reducing government revenues.

"I don't think public-employee costs caused this, but we're in the post-recession, pay-down-the-deficit era that puts a strain on the public sector," he says.

To protect the jobs of public servants, Canada's largest union, representing 618,000 public-sector workers, has urged union locals to become partners and even innovators in the search for better work processes.

"I still maintain the best job security for a CUPE member is the efficiency of the work force," Mr. Moist says. "For example, the way we serve patients at bedsides in hospitals bears no resemblance with what existed with orderlies 20 or 25 years ago. All that has been done without fanfare between the parties. This doesn't make the news."

Mr. Moist argues the best way to find solutions to Canada's looming work-force problems – notably chronic unemployment in some sectors and a shortage of workers in other areas – is to bring labour, business and government together to develop joint strategies.

Yet with several key planning councils losing funding from the Harper government, he says venues for such dialogue are disappearing.

"We need some more tables to talk about things like retirement issues for all Canadians and labour-force development issues," he says. "I think the country badly needs that, but I don't see it being imminent with the current crowd in charge."

Peter Birnie

President of Wabi Iron and Steel Corp.

Peter Birnie doesn't spend much time thinking about working with a unionized labour force at his New Liskeard, Ont., manufacturing plant, where workers are represented by the United Steelworkers Union.

Instead, he says his worries are the same as those running non-union plants: how to compete with global competition and the rapid pace of change in every industry sector.

"In a unionized environment there are some work rules and there's a more rigid job-classification process, but in every work environment, whether it's unionized or non-unionized, it really comes down to individuals," he says. "Some people have an inability to change faster than other people, and I think that's really the fundamental issue."

Workers and their unions, he says, have no choice but to accept the new need for flexibility and lifelong learning in the workplace, although he says it is undeniably stressful for older workers with less formal education.

"The pace of change may slow or speed up, but it's not going backwards to where we were. So our ability to absorb change is going to continue to be an important aspect of all our careers. And I think we're all going to have to understand that it's not a choice that any one person may choose, but it's actually fundamental in the sense that, like it or not, it's going to happen."

The president of Wabi, which makes mining equipment such as mining cages and ore loading systems, adds he has been impressed by the extent to which union leaders understand the current work and economic environment.

"It would be a terrible mistake on the part of a business manager to think that labour doesn't understand, or that they're not watching the news," he says.

It would be naive to argue unions won't struggle with the new environment, he adds, "but at the end of the day it really becomes an issue of survival, and I think there's a new reality emerging."

Jayson Myers

President of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters

The message from business today is that companies need employees – and their unions – to be more flexible, says Jayson Myers, who heads Canada's largest industry and trade association.

"What I see today is that a lot of newer companies in particular, they need flexibility and they really do not want to see themselves in a situation where they have to deal with a bureaucratized work force," says the head of the CME, which represents companies that account for 82 per cent of Canada's manufacturing production.

While the best unions are at the progressive forefront of helping adapt to change, he says, others "are reactionary and stand out there and impede change."

Mr. Myers says a major challenge for labour unions is helping workers understand that the old "pick and play" system of hiring is dead, which means adapting to a new reality in which companies can no longer pick workers to fill narrowly defined jobs.

"That's an old way of thinking and an old work-force culture," he says. "Today it is really about bringing skills to bear, but also about solving problems, being flexible, doing various jobs, multitasking. That requires a very different type of business culture."

Many of the conditions that led to the formation of unions 40 or 50 years ago – such as unsafe work environments – no longer exist, he argues, and unions must now deal with new issues, including the need for companies to attract new kinds of workers in new areas even as they downsize workers in other areas.

"The situation is so fluid today that the expectation from business today is that the labour movement and organized labour needs to be as flexible," he says.

"I don't want to classify all unions as regressive. I think there are some very progressive unions out there. And many unions are at the forefront of not only representing workers but also helping business find the workers they need."

Charlotte Yates

Dean of Social Sciences at McMaster University

Labour specialist Charlotte Yates believes the union movement needs a clearer strategy to hold on to past gains and win back lost influence.

The key task, she says, is to regain public support in an era when many Canadians think union members have excessive entitlements or union leaders have unrealistic expectations.

While unions used to have more input in politics – at least with left-leaning parties – their role in the public realm has diminished and it has led to an erosion of popular support for union causes, Prof. Yates says.

"Unions have forfeited a lot of the ground they once held in terms of political and policy ideas," she says.

"They need to have a concerted political strategy, because they cannot win at the collective bargaining table on their own. There has to be a more concerted political and social strategy that starts articulating alternatives and talks about the need for governments to play a role."

How can they win public support? Prof. Yates says unions need to advocate broadly on issues that affect all workers, especially low-income workers who lack a voice. Otherwise, she says many in the public look at labour-union members with resentment.

"Labour becomes vulnerable when they speak for their small group," she says. "If you also pick up on issues that resonate more broadly, I think that holds hope for strengthening the position of unions."

On the other hand, she also warns companies that they need to be careful not to excessively exploit their advantage in a period of economic weakness because they will risk doing significant damage not only to employee loyalty, but to company productivity.

"There's lots of evidence to suggest that if you treat people badly then, yes, they will leave, but they will also tend to be less productive. We know that."