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Home » Officer Columns » Employers Beware: Don’t Poke The Bear

Employers Beware: Don’t Poke The Bear

  -  AFM Vice President from Canada

Canada has a long history of union victories that have defined our society, prosperity, and social programmes. Within the labour movement’s success lay pertinent lessons. The established labour scene of the early 1900s was dominated by many small craft unions—each organized according to the identity of a specific skill, and therefore very exclusive. Meanwhile, unskilled labour was deemed unsuitable for unionization. Fortunately, the notion was challenged by Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Aaron Roland Mosher, a railway freight checker (and later Labour Congress president) who envisioned that a dozen railway unions could be forged into an industrywide front, skilled or unskilled, blue-collar or white-collar.

In the 1970s, union density was high, resulting in a substantial and positive influence on society and the economy. Unfortunately, today capitalism has risen to another level, utilizing deliberate outsourcing and increasingly sophisticated automation to devastate union membership. Through web interconnectivity, corporations have become more powerful. Capital flows easily, with less restrictions, and we are plunged into a new economic reality.

It’s imperative that government recognize and acknowledge the insatiable, greedy complexion of the modern workplace, and develop policies to ensure that the path to unionization is not obstructed by anti-union interference. There should be an expansion of the card-check model, where signing a majority of workers instantly triggers union affiliation. Franchises or branch offices should be designated single employers. Eliminating excessive voting requirements would offset negative employer tactics.

It is the responsibility of all Canadians to consider the dilemma facing unions, in this era of ever-expanding inequality. At what point does collective bargaining become ineffective against the concentrated power of multinational corporations (e.g., Amazon and Google)? What if all that power was used to control our very existence or family life in whole regions and communities? Then, Democracy would be compromised or even replaced by the need to serve the employer, all while increasing consolidation and automation and disenfranchising the workforce even further.

Successful unions are necessary to give those employed at least limited input into workplace operations. Unions allow workers to build and maintain representational principles and defend against the concentrated economic power of insensitive corporations and the ultra rich. More to the point, the failure of unions, whether brought on by subjugated members or dividend-prioritized bean counters, may lead to the demise of democracy and social justice.

When contemplating what a union really is, the mind conjures an image of hard hats and factories. This image is far removed from the current union landscape. Today, many union members are women working in the public sector as perhaps nurses, teachers, mail carriers, or clerks.

These jobs are more densely unionized than male-dominated construction and manufacturing. Remarkably, in 1978, women accounted for only 29% of union membership. That ascended to 45.8% in 1998 and as of 2019, women account for 53.1% of proud union members.

While women still experience rampant and systemic discrimination in the workforce, unionizing has boosted wages and reduced the gender pay gap, when compared to nonunion counterparts. That’s in addition to other bargained advantages such as pension and benefit packages. While the proverbial glass ceiling still exists, organized labour has come further than the corporate sector when it comes to women advancing into leadership positions. Union activism has been a force in securing pay equity, paid maternity leave, and paid daycare, as well as banning of gender-based workplace discrimination.

At this year’s Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) convention, in a historic first, two women—Bea Bruske of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and Linda Silas of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU)—were heavy favourites for the presidency of the CLC (though Silas withdrew due to the critical nursing conditions as a result of the pandemic).

Now, more than ever, gender representation is paramount, because the brunt of pandemic-caused disruptions and hardship in homes, schools, and workplaces are borne by women. Minority and disadvantaged females are at even greater risk because of their lack of options. Changing the face of Canada’s union leadership is emphatically not tokenism, but a gendered, equitable, and necessary response to understanding the experiences of the most vulnerable, protecting those in greatest danger of being marginalized, and amplifying their voices. Employers beware: don’t poke the bear.

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