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Richard Chaykowski is director and professor, Master of Industrial Relations Program, Queen's University. Maurice Mazerolle is director and professor at the Centre for Labour Management Relations, Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University. Rafael Gomez is director and professor, Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, University of Toronto

As we move toward the third decade of the 21st century – and as we celebrate another Labour Day – Canadian workers confront a daunting array of challenges and pressures: the need to keep up with technological change, which threatens jobs in a number of sectors; the fragmenting of the traditional employment relationship; powerful demographic changes that will mean little or no work-force growth; an aging population that is increasingly dependent on social programs; and the prospect of having to work much longer in life.

No longer can we assume that the current system of collective bargaining will ensure that workers will be protected from all these forces, especially in the private sector, where the percentage of workers represented by a union has fallen to 16.4 per cent, down from its high-water mark of 30 per cent in 1981. In other words, the overwhelming majority of workers in the Canadian private sector are, for the most part, lacking a provider of voice and representation at the workplace.

This lack of representation for the private-sector worker is important because it has left a "representation gap" for workers desiring unionization and indirectly (and in many cases directly) led to the substitution of traditional collective bargaining with statutory legislation in the form of employment standards. This means that in order to address any concerns about their terms and conditions of work, most private-sector workers must rely upon employment standards, which provide a bare minimum of protection and are often weakly enforced.

The problem is amplified by the fact that the workplace itself is changing at the same time as workers are increasingly facing the broader pressures brought on by technological and demographic changes and international competition in goods and services. The concern is that we need more transformational approaches and policies to address these labour-market challenges, something that our policy makers are currently not offering.

So what is a 21st-century option that may help employers, employees and governments adapt to the many changes identified above?

We should look to update the Labour Relations Acts (LRAs) across jurisdictions to strengthen the ability of workers to form single or multiple-issue employee groups that could represent all or just a fraction of the workers in a workplace. At a minimum, any employee group that decides to form an employee association (which could be aided by the provision of "boilerplate" union constitutions) should have the potential protection of unjust dismissal.

Labour boards could also have the authority to reinstate fired workers who formed such employee associations. Independent associations of employees could, under this model, form around a single issue – such as a change to benefit provision – that employees in a non-union setting felt was either poorly handled or decided without adequate consultation by management. The employee group would not be seeking "certification" in order to be granted the right to formally bargain with their employer, but would, at the very least, have as their goal the ability to inform management of the collective views of fellow employees and ask that management reconsider their decision.

This is an in-between model of employee representation that clearly does not afford workers the same protections found in the traditional union certification route that, if successful, compels an employer to bargain across a whole range of issues in good faith. But it does reduce the costs to employees of trying to establish some foothold for voice and some mechanism for collective representation. It also provides a stepping stone for workers who may one day choose to organize and certify in the traditional way. And it allows employers to hear from employees who may otherwise be happy in their jobs but who have a collective grievance or issue that they feel has been overlooked or handled poorly.

This model could offer a way for workers in small private-sector establishments, or temporary and part-time workers, to receive voice in a tailored and independent way, and potentially stem the growth of "one-size-fits-all" employment standards laws that many employers find so displeasing. As we enjoy the Labour Day long weekend, we should also turn our collective thinking to how best to ensure that our labour policies serve and advance the interests of Canadian workers.

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