A Tale of Two Unions

These times should be ripe for the expansion of unions. Low-paid workers are angry. The middle class sees their way of life slipping away. Yet union growth is elusive, in part, because of traditional structure says Anil Verma, labour relations expert at the University of Toronto. “Part of the inability of unions to reach out to new members relates to their own structure,” he says. “If the union movement was starting out today, it would look totally different.”


Unions lift all wages, even non-union workers, according to urbanist Richard Florida. His research shows that low wages are greater in regions where unions are weak.

Canadians regard unions as bad medicine: good but hard to swallow. An Environics poll conducted in 2011 found that a majority of Canadians believe that unions have too much power. But then, even more believe they are necessary. “An even stronger majority also believe that unions are important and effective institutions, in terms of protecting employees’ rights in the workplace and improving working conditions for all Canadians,” reports John Lorinc in his article for The Walrus, State of the Unions.

Regardless of conflicting opinions, millions of Canadian workers –one-third of those surveyed– would love to join a union. Unions have been unable to tap into this longing.

The other face of that love/hate relationship sees unions as self-serving. Four out of five Canadians believe that unions are only concerned about their member’s welfare and care little about the poor and disadvantaged.

This is hardly news to unions but it became painfully obvious when two unions recently merged. The Canadian Auto Workers, and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union of Canada combined to form Unifor last year. In preparation for this union of unions, they hired consultants to take the pulse of the nation.

The consultants found that not just the general public, but many union members thought about their unions only when money came up during contract talks. Contrary to hard-boiled union rhetoric they spent little time dwelling on the larger question of working conditions. Unifor faced “a branding problem par excellence,” which could threaten its ability to organize and influence public policy said the consultants.

While Unifor struggles to connect with its membership and community, another union putting is returning to roots. In contrast to the established blue-collar and civil service unions across Canada, a relatively small union, UNITE HERE, is mobilizing its workforce reminiscent of union street activists of a century ago.

The union is a merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE). They are targeting workers in the service and tourism sectors. UNITE HERE aims to improve the working conditions of immigrants, women, and visible minorities who toil in hotels and casinos.

And they’re taking it to the streets. Members organize, stage demonstrations, and confront unpleasant managers. They keep things stirred up and in the face of exploitive employers. Compared to the conventional grievance process, which attempts to resolve things in civil manner, UNITE HERE keeps workers engaged daily in workplace injustices.


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