Unions in Canada need to modernize, but are still relevant: experts

Workers of the Blue Water Bridge picket strike at the bridge administration building, next to the span between Sarnia and Port Huron, Michigan on Nov. 21, 2016, in Sarnia, Ont. Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

As WestJet employees inch closer to forming a union, the airline’s CEO is warning them it’s a bad idea.

The company’s top boss, Gregg Saretsky, revealed that five unions are now trying to certify several groups of WestJet workers after its pilots agreed in May to join the Air Line Pilots Association. He urged staff against the move in an e-mail.

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“Unions are opportunistically trying to grow their businesses by targeting WestJetters,” Saretsky said in the e-mail obtained by The Canadian Press.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, on the other hand, has been outspoken in courting workers from the airline.

“With 11,500 airline members around the country, CUPE represents the vast majority of flight attendants in Canada, and I believe our reputation for negotiating the best contracts in the industry speaks for itself,” the union’s president, Mark Hancock, wrote in an open letter to WestJet workers Tuesday.

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But unionization rates in Canada have been falling for years, according to Statistics Canada.

The rate of unionization in the country fell from 37.6 per cent in 1981 to 28.8 per cent in 2014.

A professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, Maurice Mazerolle, says the drop in unions is partly due to the changing landscape of jobs, which increasingly consists of precarious work, remote workers, and contract and part-time jobs.

He also adds that some industries that were most commonly unionized have declined, such as manufacturing jobs in Ontario which have been outsourced overseas.

“Manufacturing was one of the strongholds of the union industry,” Mazerolle said.

Mark Thompson, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, notes that with short-term employment on the rise both employers and workers can lack “commitment” to invest in unions.

“They’re hard to unionize,” he suggests, adding neither party wants to spend time and money solving issues until a long-term commitment exists.

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On the flip-side, Thompson also notes that unions need to try new models so they appeal to younger workers who aren’t necessarily working full-time, permanent jobs like their unionized parents did.

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He says unions also “overplay their hands,” explaining many workers want some representation and adversarial support, but still want freedom.

Mazerolle agrees that unions should modernize, and most importantly re-brand their image.

“Younger people look at unions as a bureaucracy,” he said, explaining that like employers, they are seen as being “in it for themselves” rather than vested in workers’ interests.

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One way unions can upgrade their image is by removing rules that benefit older employees to the disadvantage of younger workers, Mazerolle suggested.

“Seniority rules work against young workers,” he said, explaining that young and recent hires are more likely to be laid off, get precarious shifts, fewer vacation days, and be passed up for promotions.

While unions have their faults, Thompson says they are still relevant.

“What we are facing in this country is a long period of wage stagnation and growing inequality,” and working conditions will continue to “deteriorate” without unions, he said.

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Even with declining popularity, unions still carry their traditional benefits, David Macdonald, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said. He cited greater job security, and higher wages as a few examples.

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“It’s much more difficult to straight-up fire someone,” he said. “Certainly, folks in unions have more security.”

Possibly the most obvious benefit is that unions yield higher pay for employees, MacDonald said.

“And it’s not just one employee that’s getting better pay,” he noted, saying that changes in wages and benefits affect all members of the union.

—With files from The Canadian Press

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