Ontario Labour: It Has A Good Story To Tell. So Why Doesn't It?
By Brad James
Again this fall, many union members across Ontario did something that they do every autumn.
No, not marching in the Labour Day parades. I mean watching the annual fall cavalcade of newspaper opinion pieces on the state of the labour movement.
This year’s pieces:Tom Parkin in the Toronto Sun said labour’s got a bright future, if only it would seize it. Stephen Gordon in the National Post asserted that unions are too sturdy in the public sector and perhaps too frail in the private. Tom Walkom, in the Toronto Star, wrote that labour and the NDP need to get tighter. And Bruce Anderson's Globe and Mail piece observed that unions need to adapt in the age of Trumpism.
There are different ways to view union membership numbers in Canada: the glass is either one third full or two thirds empty.
Actually, it’s not quite a full third - about 31% of employees in Canada are union members. That overall level is stronger in the public sector while private sector membership is about 16%.
In comparison, private-sector unionization rate in the U.S. is 6.5%. A recent study (not by anti-union authors), says data issues mean that’s overstated, so 5% could be more accurate.
On the legislative side, the U.S. Wagner Act in 1935 preceded Canadian collective bargaining legislation by a decade.
What’s on the horizon for Canadian union membership? Will Canada’s sturdier union density hold up?
Today, employees are facing rapid shifts in the traditional structures of employment (contracting-out and the growth of "precarious" work), pressures from global trade expansion and the ever-deeper reach of powerful technology - digital and robotic - into their working lives.
Ontario’s unions, with help from community groups and organizations for non-union employees, want legislative modernizations to give employees a better foundation to weather these trends.
Ontario’s government is seeking input on possible changes of employment and labour law. The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), now more unified than in recent years, is forging diverse union aspirations into consensus and backing it up with a broad-based advocacy effort. Arrayed, mainly in opposition, is an undertaking led by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.
The Liberal government could take progressive legislative action early next year or it could choose to tinker. Or it could drag this whole file into the next election.
That’s why union members and their elected representatives should work and hope for the best but still plan for what labour can do apart from whatever policy changes may take place.
One idea stems from a quick look at the provincial labour board's numbers, which show that Ontario’s unions put most of their efforts into campaigns that do not move the density needle by much. In 2014-2015 there were 190 successful union votes covering 10,087 new members (excluding construction industry votes). But 131 of them (70%) were in units of less than 40 employees. As important as those 131 wins are, they covered only 1,857 new members. That's less than 20 per cent of overall total growth of the new members for the year.
There is a lot behind those statistics, but it’s clear that a lot of resources are being expended on campaigns that cover a minority of new members.
Bigger, broader organizing campaigns among much larger groups of employees should be a goal. Given resource limits, that could even come in the form of regional, sectoral or company-wide organizing plans shared between different unions. The OFL’s success in building its consensus on legislative reform can be the basis for the building tangible cooperation between unions on these larger, shared campaigns.
Next, unions often seem to reflexively promote harsh news and underplay their members’ gains. For example, unions grumble that the media only pays attention to strikes, but a scroll through some union websites shows some of the same bias toward strikes and lockouts over bargaining successes.
Unions often rely on well-worn themes: things are lousy for working people; governments are craven; and employers are taking advantage.
Is that the way to inspire non-union employees to consider joining?
Another theme in union communications has been an increase in publicity about their significant donations to community charities. But as good those contributions are, spreading the word about them should not overshadow news of good bargaining and representation of members’ rights at work.
In the close to 13,300 collective bargaining relationships in Ontario there are plenty of impressive outcomes. They can rightly be called ‘community building’ too. Unions would benefit from letting more people hear about them.
Looking again at trends from the south of the border, there is no shortage of thinking in the US about the future of organized labour. This year Gabriel Winant's piece about unions had some sharp insights about the gap between unions’ limited resources and the huge demands on them (from political activism down to shop floor representation). Organizers of conferences about the "future of labour" would do well to read it. It echoed a few of the points made by Rich Yeselson in his important and, for some, controversial “Fortress Unionism" 2013 article, which laid out ways to keep unions viable and ready while waiting for a jump in demand from employees for union membership.
As well, there are companies that are forward-thinking enough to see that a durable labour movement is not a negative for good employers. Unions and thoughtful, progressive employers should be finding ways to talk together to the provincial government about smart employment and labour policies that while help Ontario’s growth be shared fairly.
Perhaps when next year's spate of Labour Day media coverage takes place, 2016-2017 there will have been positive changes on these fronts.
Brad James is the Organizing Department Leader for the United Steelworkers Canadian National Office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are his own.