Tough times for unions

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Mon Sep 06 2010

The annual Labour Day parade today is to wind along Queen St. to its destination at the Canadian National Exhibition, itself a dinosaur. The union members in the parade can only hope the route is not somehow symbolic.

These are tough times for unions as they struggle to maintain both their members’ benefits and their place in society. The unionization rate — union membership as a proportion of the whole workforce — is down to 31.4 per cent in Canada from a peak of 38 per cent in the 1980s. In Ontario, the rate, at 27.6 per cent, is below the national average.

These overall numbers mask another trend: public sector unionization rates are very high — about three in every four workers. But union membership is dwindling in the private sector with the decline in manufacturing jobs, which are traditionally unionized, and the rise of the service sector, which is much harder to organize, as unions have discovered over the years.

On the flip side, however, the unionization rate in Canada is much higher than in the United States, where it has slipped to just 12.4 per cent of the workforce. In the private sector, the U.S. unionization rate is at a pre-New Deal level of just 7.6 per cent.

What that means is that the labour movement can be, and often is, ignored by the politicians in the U.S. But not in Canada, where it is still a force to be reckoned with.

That has been demonstrated in the past year in the debate over pensions in Canada. The labour movement has apparently succeeded in getting the reluctant politicians to agree to a major expansion of the public Canada Pension Plan as a substitute for withering private sector pensions. Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, says that if the politicians follow through on their commitments, it will be the “biggest social program expansion since medicare.”

Besides pensions, the top priority for the labour movement in Ontario is signing up new members. To that end, Ryan and other union leaders are pushing the Ontario government for a change in the labour law to allow for “card-based certification.” That is, unions could be certified if a majority of employees signed union cards, as used to be the case before the Mike Harris Conservatives changed the law to require a vote before certification. The Liberal government at Queen’s Park restored card-based certification only for the construction unions.

The Liberals are also at odds with the unions over the proposed public sector wage freeze. But here the unions are caught in a dilemma, for they know that if they get involved in a messy confrontation with the Liberal government, it could result in the election of the labour-unfriendly Conservatives.

On the private sector front, the unions have to work harder to convince service sector employees of the merits of union membership. While many of these employees are envious of the benefits won by unionized workers, they are still reluctant to join a union. Even though 97 per cent of labour disputes are settled without a strike, many non-union workers think that if they join a union, they will be going on strike. “We have an image problem, no question,” says the OFL’s Ryan.

The labour movement is far from dead in Ontario, or in Canada. But as it marks Labour Day today, the movement faces many challenges.

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