Union sympathies took a hit after a wildcat strike last October organized by the Quebec Federation of Labour shut down construction projects, including the MUHC superhospital site, above, in a protest against changes proposed by the provincial government that would eliminate the right of unions to decide who is eligible to work on construction sites.
Photograph by: Phil Carpenter, Gazette File Photo
In honour of Labour Day, the holiday created over a century ago to celebrate the advances of the working class, our nation's media published a slew of articles and columns last month predicting the slow, inexorable decline of the country's union movement.
Although 4.3 million members of Canada's workforce are unionized, the proportion of those who belong to unions has been dropping for 30 years, assailed by the harsh competitive forces of the global marketplace and subsequent loss of jobs, primarily in the manufacturing sector. Public service unions were forecast to follow as debt-ridden governments cut jobs, wages and benefits.
Quebec, however, manages once again to be distinct. Second only to Newfoundland and Labrador as the most unionized sector in North America, its union numbers have remained stable and employer-union labour relations relatively civil, for reasons of history, labour law and the foresight of its trade unions to become major players in the province's business structure.
The prognosis for the rest of Canada, though, was not as bright. From a high of 38 per cent during the 1980s, the percentage of the workforce that is unionized fell to 30 per cent in 2011, according to Statistics Canada. Most of the drop was seen in the private sector, where only 16 per cent of employees are unionized, half the average of the 1980s. Roughly three-quarters of Canadians work in the private sector.
In Canada, the percentage of unionized public sector employees like civil servants, teachers and health care workers has remained relatively stable at 71 per cent, thanks in part to increased hiring during the last decade. But the trend appears to be heading in the other direction, with Stephen Harper's Conservative government pledging to cut as many as 18,000 jobs from the federal public service over the coming years to combat the nation's deficit, and thousands of layoffs or cuts through attrition already occurring since the government tabled its budget last March.
The figures point to a decline in union might, analysts say.
"Our belief is that we will continue to see the union density rate fall, and union influence will decline over the long term," said Karla Thorpe, director of human resources research for the Conference Board of Canada, a non-profit research organization. There is a sense that many of the battles unions fought — for improved wages, workplace security, pensions, pay equity — have already been won, she said. Now they are more involved in secondary fights, like protecting pension plans or job security.
Other foreboding signs include federal back-to-work legislation used to end strikes at Air Canada, Canadian Pacific Railway and Canada Post during the last 16 months, wage freezes and a two-year ban on striking for Ontario teachers imposed by the province's Liberal government, and the February closing of the Caterpillar locomotive engine plant in London, Ont., after its 460 workers refused to accept pay cuts of up to 50 per cent. Most of their jobs were transferred to Indiana, where welders were being offered $14.50 an hour. Days before the transfer, Indiana announced it was becoming a right-to-work state, meaning workers there can opt out of becoming members of a union and paying dues. Twenty-two other states have similar legislation. This summer, Ontario Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre suggested federal public service employees be granted similar rights.
In the United States, slightly less than 12 per cent of workers are unionized today, down from 30 per cent during the 1960s.
Unions are also slipping in the court of public opinion. A poll conducted in August by labour-friendly public relations firm Public Response found 61 per cent of Canadians feel unions do a good job of protecting their members' jobs. But when asked whether "gains made by unions for their members also improve the lives of other Canadians," 46 per cent of respondents agreed, while 42 per cent did not. Only 53 per cent of respondents age 18-29 said they would join a union given the opportunity. Another poll found respondents were more likely to believe management or company owners than they would a union spokesperson. As one Toronto union head put it in an email quoted in the Globe and Mail: "The public hates unions right now."
In Quebec, union sympathies took a beating after a wildcat strike last October organized by the Quebec Federation of Labour shut construction sites for days. They were contesting provincial legislation that would eliminate the right of unions to decide who is eligible to work on construction sites, a move applauded by many Quebecers who feel construction unions have become too powerful for their, or our, good. The sentiment was reinforced when provincial Labour Minister Lise Thériault announced someone threatened to break her legs.
Union support for last spring's student strike movement, unpopular with the majority of Quebecers, served as a further fodder for those who see unions as spoiled institutions out of touch with the realities of the working world.
"There's a public appetite to see high wages and generous benefits and pension plans for public sector workers (diminished) when they themselves don't have the same type of total compensation packages," Thorpe noted.
"There is a growing perception, among both academics and union activists, that the union movement in Canada is at a standstill," Pradeep Kumar, professor emeritus of industrial relations at Queen's University wrote in the labour magazine Our Times as far back as 2008. "Many labour analysts agree with this sentiment, some citing battle fatigue, while arguing that the movement may be losing its cohesion and larger sense of purpose."
How did it come to this? How did a movement credited with creating the middle class in Canada and maintaining its living standards, that is about "improving the everyday lives of all working people," as the Canadian Labour Congress puts it, supposedly stall? And how did it become a bloated, self-absorbed pariah in the eyes of many?
The short answer, said Gregor Murray, a professor of Industrial relations at the Université de Montréal and director of the Interuniversity Research Centre on Globalization and Work (CRIMT), is that in fact it hasn't.
"There seems to be a public narrative that unions have outlived their usefulness," he said. "There is no reason, particularly in Quebec, to accept the narrative that unions are somehow going to disappear."
In Quebec, the rate of unionization has remained relatively stable as compared to manufacturer-heavy southern Ontario, from whence much of the reporting of union demise emerged. About 25 per cent of the private sector is unionized in Quebec, as opposed to 15 per cent in Ontario, where the drops have been significant during the last decade.
The disparity between Quebec and Ontario, Murray notes, (and between Canada and the United States,) is due in large part to government policy. Starting in the 1990s, Ontario required unions to hold elections at workplaces where they wanted to unionize, a long process allowing employers to try to convince employees that forming a union could be a very bad idea. In Quebec, organizers can form a union without the employer's knowledge by getting more than 50 per cent of its employees to sign union cards.
Also, Murray noted, Quebec has strong competition among its many unions. Dissatisfied members can opt for a different organization, which forces them to remain innovative to meet the needs of their members.
"The third reason — and this is a crucial one," Murray said, "is that unions have continued to play a significant role in Quebec Inc."
During the 1980s crisis in the manufacturing sector, the Quebec Federation of Labour created the Quebec Solidarity Fund, to create jobs, amass pension funds, and provide capital so investors and entrepreneurs could create business. Today, the fund has more than $8 billion, sought out by government and private interests for its capital and industrial expertise.
"What you've got is a fund that is all union money, that ties unions into Quebec society," Murray said. "They're institutionalized, they're heavily involved in the creation of economic activity. They're not just an opposition voice.
"You can't do that and not seek to do things on the ground that are innovative — reorganizing work, trying to make sure workers are trained, looking around the world at other collective agreements."
Multinational companies, in turn, choose Quebec because it has a well-trained, flexible workforce with low turnover rates. One example of that was seen in Bombardier unions' willingness to adapt in order to ensure its CSeries line of planes were made here, and not in the U.S., Murray noted.
Some argue, however, that high unionization rates are chasing jobs from Quebec.
"There is research that shows if the unionization rates are too high, you have lower employment growth, lower levels of investment, so in general you have lower levels of economic growth," said Amela Karabegovic, senior economist specializing in labour issues at the right-leaning Fraser Institute. About 5 million people in the U.S. have moved into states that have right-to-work legislation, she said.
"It shows that when you have choice, it does create jobs, it does create investment."
Murray, however, questions the feasibility of creating a workforce of low-paid employees, like automobile plant workers earning $14 an hour, who can't afford to buy the product they build, destroying the economic impetus generated by internal demand. Even China, he notes, is looking into significantly increasing minimum wages to spur the buying power of its workers.
Murray points to Germany, a highly unionized country of well-paid workers that is the leading manufacturing exporter in the world, outstripping China. Strong worker representation and decision making ability at high levels in their firms makes for a happy, wealthy workforce, he said, which leads to a "trickle up" effect, as opposed to the trickle down theory espoused by the business class.
"It's the counter example to the U.S.," he said. "Which manufacturing sector is in a better state?"
In the public sector, there is unease. It is born of the suspicion of a movement afoot by employers and some politicians to weaken unions, said Denis Bolduc, secretary-treasurer of SCFP, the Quebec branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). He speaks of cuts by the Harper government, and of the campaign promises of Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault to abolish 4,000 jobs from Hydro-Québec and disband other civil service institutions like school boards and health agencies that were well received by many.
Equally dismaying to Bolduc is the public sentiment that civil servants receive too much in benefits, and should have them rolled back, as opposed to trying to elevate the rest of society to their standards. It's a poisonous discourse born of envy, he said.
"What the population must understand is that the people who want to attack unionized workers ultimately attack non-unionized workers, because a higher union rate means better benefits, advantages and salaries for everyone," he said.
The Canadian Labour Congress found that unionized workers make on average $5 an hour more than their non-unionized compatriots, Bolduc said, improving their lives and injecting an extra $800 million a week into the Canadian economy. It's not high salaries for CEOs who profit on the low wages of their workers that creates a rich society, he said.
"The sharing of wealth starts with good salaries and through social measures that benefit workers."
Quebec's unions need to talk more about the good they have brought to society and the advantages of being unionized, he said.
Instead of cutting civil service jobs to reduce deficits, Bolduc called on governments to increase corporate taxes that were lowered in the last decade. It's an argument seconded by Michèle Boisclair, vice-president of the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec, the province's nursing union. The government, and society, would also be better served saving money through tackling construction corruption and using generic drugs, as opposed to cutting an overburdened medical system with members who feel overworked.
"I wouldn't be being honest if I said everybody was completely happy," she noted. "When we look at the value of our work, we have the impression that we are giving more than we are getting."
With 2 million Quebecers earning less than $18,000 a year, often in service-industry jobs like retail or customer service where unionization is difficult, it's up to society to ensure decent lives for them and their children, Murray said. This can be done through government programs like favourable taxation rates and programs like pharmacare and daycare that bring private benefits to the overall populace.
Things are looking up for Quebec unions with the election of the labour friendly Parti Québécois government, noted Ghislain Dufour, former president of the Conseil du patronat, Quebec's largest employers group. To continue to thrive, however, he said they will need to find an approach that works for small- and medium-size businesses, a growing segment of the business economy with a culture that is different than in large companies, and to stop demanding laws that favour only unions.
"They need to accept the economic realities of today, and to accept that it is only businesses that create jobs, and that unions need to help them to fulfill this mission," he said.
The labour movement is facing huge challenges worldwide, noted Murray, which is why the Montreal-based Interuniversity Research Centre on Globalization and Work is holding an international conference titled Union Futures: Innovations, Transformations, Strategies at HEC Montreal from Oct. 25 to 27.
But there are signs of hope. Huge public- and private-sector strikes are largely movements of the past as employers and their workers strive to avoid debilitating impasses. Montreal's blue collar workers just signed a five-year contract with the City of Montreal, resolving deep differences over pension issues. Unions are reaching formerly under-represented immigrant groups like migrant agricultural workers, Turkish stucco workers and Filipino aid workers at Chinese seniors homes in Toronto, the Globe and Mail reported last spring. More collaborative approaches bringing together employers, employees and union representatives are being used successfully.
The fact non-union friendlyretail giants like Wal-Mart and Target are willing to move into Canada and compete in a unionized environment is a sign it isn't scaring off investors, Thorpe said. And as baby boomers retire and the labour force shrinks, "power will be shifting more to the hands of the workers."
As labour analyst Morna Ballantyne noted recently in the Ottawa Citizen, lower wages, high unemployment, shrinking pensions and poor job security are all prime elements in the creation of a resurgent labour union movement.
"We're now experiencing all the conditions that gave rise to unions being a powerful voice," Ballantyne said.
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