Adapt To Change

I read the article "Organizing at a Crossroads" with great interest. I think the author, Bill Murnighan, might have been less pessimistic about the labour movement's future if he were more familiar with the remarkable organizing momentum of unions such as UFCW Canada (United Food and Commercial Workers), the union I am interning with this summer.

Since its founding in 1979, UFCW Canada has grown faster than the Canadian workforce. Last year, the union's membership grew by four per cent (9,500 workers) and was, once again, the leader in organizing the retail-trade and service sector workers who, Murnighan rightfully points out, are under-represented. UFCW Canada now represents over 230,000 members, a majority of whom work in the private-sector service industries.

Murnighan says that "a good measure of the attraction of a union to unorganized workers is the idea that a union can make gains." And a union that makes gains has happy union members who help organize prospective members just by their very existence. With this in mind, UFCW Canada is continuously adapting to shifting demographic currents within the workforce and its own membership, finding out what the members want, and acting on it.

The union's efforts to meet the employment-related needs of women and youth are good examples of its ability to adapt. Women now make up nearly half of Canada's paid workforce and more than half of UFCW Canada's membership, and the union has been paying attention both nationally and locally. Local unions have their own, individual approach to addressing women's issues, depending on the nature of the workplace they represent. As well, more than a decade ago, the national union established a women's advisory committee to give more recognition and resource support to those issues that are widely shared by working women, such as sexual harassment, reproductive health and safety, equity of opportunity, and family leave. The union's achievements in these areas are attractive to women who are deciding whether or not to sign a union card.

Another good example of the union's ability to adapt to change is the attention it pays to its younger members. UFCW Canada is the youngest union in Canada, demographically speaking, with well over 30 per cent of its membership under the age of 30. Many of these members are students who work full time in retail stores, earning money to further their education and help contribute to their families' economic well-being. Having a union on their side gives them respect, seniority and job security, things they would never have in most jobs populated by young, part-time workers.

As well, virtually every one of UFCW Canada's retail-sector collective agreements provides for health care and dental insurance benefits for part-time workers, as well as membership in the union's national pension plan. It is not uncommon for a young, part-time clerk in a UFCW Canada-represented supermarket to have better benefits than her parents. The union also awards hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships every year to members and their children. Plus, there is a national program directed at young members, and a very popular youth internship program aimed at developing the union leaders of tomorrow. All of this attention that is being paid to young members and their concerns not only makes members happy, but it also means their friends and acquaintances hear good things about unions.

While there is no substitute for the face-to-face contact so essential to organizing and servicing success, UFCW Canada has also not been slow in adapting to technological change and using it creatively, both in organizing drives and in servicing members. For example, during the recent BSE ("mad-cow disease") and SARS crises, more than 1,700 UFCW Canada members were laid off, with no warning. The union quickly challenged Human Resources Development Canada Minister Jane Stewart to urgently address the economic pain being suffered by its members. An Internet-based fax-your-MP campaign was developed in just a few days and resulted in a flood of written pleas to members of parliament in every province, not just those in Alberta and Ontario. The government responded with a range of programs to assist workers hit with this sudden change in their lives.

The fax-your-MP program is just one of the innovative ways the union has adapted to new communications technology and used it to reach not only its current members, but prospective ones as well. The national union as well as every major local union has a main web site, and special-purpose web sites are used for large organizing campaigns.

The union's experience and technical savvy is now being poured into two new organizing drives.

The first is an intense and aggressive drive to organize workers at the retail giant Wal-Mart, possibly the most anti-union corporation in the industrialized world. Besides doing traditional leafleting and home visits, the union has established a bilingual hot-line and a web site specifically devoted to the organizing campaign ( And it's working!

On May 8, 2003, the British Colum-bia Labour Relations Board found Wal-Mart Canada guilty of unfair labour practices for interfering with the formation of a trade union in a store in Quesnel, British Columbia. UFCW Canada Local 1518 was awarded time with all employees without the presence of management. Management was also ordered to read aloud the decision summary to all employees. Six weeks later, the Manitoba Labour Relations Board conducted a vote at a Wal-Mart store in Thompson, where UFCW Canada Local 832 had signed up the majority of workers. Many more local Wal-Mart campaigns are underway, helped along by the union's reputation as a strong, dependable voice for retail workers, young and old, male and female, full-time and part-time.

The second organizing campaign is aimed at agricultural workers in Ontario, who had their right to union representation and collective bargaining rights stripped away in 1995 by the province's Conservative government. UFCW Canada spent seven years fighting the Tory legislation through the courts and, in December 2001, they won a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision that stated that denying "right of association" and "equity under the law" to agricultural workers violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Amazingly, the Eves government has tried to sidestep this decision with a sham law that gave these workers a feeble right to "associate," but not the right to bargain collectively. The union immediately defied this law by organizing an overwhelming majority of workers in a Kingsville mushroom factory and applying for certification to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. (The board conducted a vote on July 7, 2003, but sealed the ballot box. It will hear arguments from all sides, including from government rep-resentatives, UFCW Canada, and the plant's management, before determining if the vote will be counted. The union expects ongoing legal battles until either a new government respects the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court decision, or until the Court itself makes its prior ruling clearer and overturns the Conservative ploy.)

Both of these union drives are expected to take years. Nonetheless, UFCW Canada is committed to helping these two large groups of workers win the benefits of a union, no matter how long it takes. With such signs of energy, creativity and commitment from unions like this, I think there are grounds for optimism about the future of the labour movement in Canada.

Megan Flannigan is from Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia.