Commentary,  Labour Standards,  Trade Unions

Facilitating Workers’ Choice to Get Together

It’s no surprise that more workers seek the bargaining power and protection that comes with a union: to try to make sure their wages keep up with inflation, they are safe from COVID at work, and more. But often it takes an epic battle, like something out of a Hollywood movie, to achieve that goal. That’s because of multiple barriers erected in the path of unionization, by employers who want to preserve their unilateral control in the workplace. In this commentary, originally published in the Toronto Star, Centre for Future Work Director Jim Stanford discusses why unionization is so difficult, and what policies would facilitate fairer and more democratic certification processes.

Why Is It So Hard to Form a Union?

By Jim Stanford

There has been a visible upsurge in efforts to organize new unions in Canada – and other countries. And it’s not hard to figure out why.

The COVID pandemic placed unprecedented pressure on workers in many industries. They faced the risk of contagion at work, without adequate safety procedures or equipment. Work demands intensified: especially in health care and other front-line services, but in private sector workplaces, too (like warehouses, transportation, and hospitality). 

Now, to top it off, wages are lagging far behind surging prices. Over the last year, hourly wages grew 3.45%, but inflation rose 5.7%. That means workers lost over 2% of their real purchasing power. They need faster wage increases to catch up. Forming a union, and exerting some collective bargaining pressure, is the obvious solution.

Union drives at big-name chains (like Starbucks, Amazon, and Indigo) have captured much attention. But significant organizing is also underway in many less visible industries: including health care, transportation, and logistics. Those efforts will continue. But will they result in a significant increase in union membership? Not necessarily – because unfortunately, the deck is stacked against workers translating their desire for collective representation, into an actual union.

Union membership lifted modestly in Canada after COVID: rising about one percentage point, to around 31% of all workers. The increase was concentrated among women (now more unionized than men), and in public sector workplaces (like health care). In private businesses, however, union presence is eroding: down to 15% of private sector workers last year, continuing a decades-long slide.

This is not due to lack of interest. Opinion polls in the U.S. indicate over half of non-union workers would prefer to be in a union. Surveys in Canada also indicate a large, unmet desire for union protection. And it’s little wonder: union members earn 15% more than non-union workers, are more than twice as likely to have a workplace pension, and have much stronger job security rights.

But the desire for a union is hampered at every turn, especially in private firms, by concerted employer opposition. Union avoidance tactics, often overseen by high-priced anti-union consultants, include surveillance, harassment and even dismissal of union agitators; misinformation campaigns about unions; and piecemeal concessions (like one-time bonuses, or promises to “engage” with workers) to forestall unionization.

One important barrier to unionization is the system of mandatory workplace votes implemented in several jurisdictions over the last generation. Conservative Premier Mike Harris introduced this practice in Ontario – in one of his first legislative acts in 1995. Stephen Harper did the same in the federal jurisdiction.

The idea sounds “democratic”, but in practice it’s more like an election in North Korea than a genuine collective decision. The vote takes place under the watchful eye of the boss, on the employer’s premises. Only the employer has access to a full voters list, and can hold compulsory “information sessions” (even one-on-one) to warn against unionization. Employers make implicit, and often explicit, threats about future job security if workers vote for the union. Meanwhile, union campaigners are standing off-site, handing out flyers.

The B.C. government has announced an important step to simplify and protect the choice of workers over unionization. Where a clear majority of workers (over 55% in an identified workplace or occupational group) join a union, it can be certified without that mandatory, employer-friendly vote. Workers then have another, more genuine opportunity to approve the whole arrangement when they ratify their first contract: by secret ballot, in a neutral location, free from employer intimidation.

The federal government made a similar change in 2017, restoring single-step certification in federally regulated industries (like transportation and communications). That’s spurred successful union organizing at companies like WestJet. Other provinces with single-step certification (including Quebec, New Brunswick, and PEI) also have a stronger union presence, more collective bargaining, and less inequality.

The recent union victory at Amazon’s huge warehouse in New York proves motivated workers can overcome unrelenting hostility from even the most powerful corporate bosses. But it shouldn’t have to be an epic, Hollywood-worthy battle for workers to advance their interests by forming a union. The BC legislation is an important step toward a fairer system. And there’s plenty more that should be done.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.