Making The Right Choices
Bill Murnighan’s article “Organizing at a Crossroads” is a first-rate
survey of labour’s organizing challenges and the grim situation facing
working people and their unions in Canada: a stagnant union density
rate; labour market changes heralding a steep decline in unionization;
more low-paying service jobs; etc. Labour faces real choices about
various paths to growth and failing to make the right ones might place
us squarely in the middle of the intersection, open to being hit from
all sides at once.
One could easily add other points to Bill’s good-news/bad-news
framework. For example, Canada’s relatively stable union density rate
(the percentage of employees who are members of unions) can obscure the
significant, gradual decline in chain or pattern bargaining that has
taken place in the last decade and a half. More and more employers seek
to treat separate workplaces in the same corporate chain as separate
“profit centres,” with increasingly different collective agreements.
Their often successful attempts to break pattern-setting and chain
contracts have meant that unions get caught by employers playing off
bargaining unit against unit, and union member against union member.>
There are also some new Ontario numbers (likely unavailable when Bill
wrote his article) that are very troubling. When the Ontario Labour
Relations Board statistics are cleared of those new certifications that
are really just shifts of members from one union to another (via a
process called “displacement applications”), fiscal 2002-2003 saw only
13,708 people join unions. That is a 15 per cent drop from the
province’s membership growth in 2001-2002 (16,255 new members) and an
astounding 57 per cent drop from 1994-1995 (32,116 new members).
Admittedly, 1994-1995 is a tough standard to meet, given that labour was
taking full advantage of the window opened by the NDP government’s
labour law reforms. But some estimates set the Ontario labour movement’s
“replacement rate” (the number of new members needed annually just to
maintain density) at a minimum of 35,000, so talking about that level of
activity is a relevant and compelling standard.
In his useful argument that better strategies are needed for smaller
units, Bill implies that unions organize mainly larger workplaces. We
draw somewhat different conclusions from the available data. In fact, it
is already the case, in Ontario at least, that most newly organized
units tend to be comparatively small workplaces. The OLRB 2000-2001
annual report says: “Small units continued to be the predominant pattern
of union organizing efforts through the certification process in
2000-2001. The average size of the 542 bargaining units in the 521
applications that were certified was 68 employees, compared with 63
employees in 1999-2000. The 63 units in construction certifications
averaged seven employees, and the 479 units in non-construction
certifications averaged 76 employees. Sixty-three point nine per cent of
the total certification applications involved units of fewer than 40
employees, and 26.1 per cent applied to units of fewer than 10
Why do few unions actually take on the challenge of consistently running
organizing efforts at large workplaces? Often it has less to do with the
presence or absence of strategy than with the real-world fact that
individual organizers are under constant pressure to win new units. And
campaigns at small units wrap up a lot faster than large campaigns.
While Bill is certainly right that “it often takes as much work to
provide services to a group of 25 workers as it does to provide services
to a group of 250,” it is truer still that organizing a group of 25
takes a lot less effort than organizing a group of 250. In the absence
of effective plans for integrating small units and bargaining first
contracts, it is arguable that unions continue to organize too many
But this is a disagreement over detail rather than with Bill’s wider
argument. He is right-on about the critical absence of a strategic union
presence in large swaths of the service sectors, and even now in
manufacturing. And we salute his gutsy, albeit muted, proposal that
unions actually consider going beyond business as usual toward “a new
level of concerted action.” Are unions in Canada up to the challenge?
The evidence so far is mixed.
Carrying organizational structures designed in the 1940s and 1950s for
larger bargaining units, many unions now struggle to meet the demands of
a membership that is divided into relatively small individual bargaining
units in smaller workplaces with greater industrial and demographic
diversity. Internal restructuring attempts such as amalgamation of
diverse units into larger local-union structures have not completely
solved the servicing shortfall.
Bill’s emphasis on the importance of unions bargaining for restrictions
on employer actions during organizing campaigns, through neutrality
provisions, is also right on the money. That includes persuading current
members of longstanding local unions that winning neutrality clauses in
their next round of bargaining is in their interest something that is
not always self-evident to workers who’ve been unionized for as long as
they can remember.
In his article, Bill expresses the hope that unions will “centralize”
their bargaining structures and also “create a new mix” of structures to
represent people who are currently beyond the reach of collective
bargaining as allowed by existing labour law.
Developing more centralized bar-gaining, especially for workers in
separate and small stand-alone units in the same sector, is easier said
than done. When those small units are with different employers, it gets
even tougher. Add to the mix different unions representing those small
units, and the chances of effective centralization fade almost out of
Rather than organizing new units that offer unsustainable toeholds in
new sectors, unions could productively focus on organizing small units
where a sustainable and expandable collective bargaining structure can
be envisioned under current laws.
Here’s one example. Starting about 12 years ago and following progress
in Quebec, the Steelworkers implemented a sectoral organizing strategy
in the Canadian security industry that has helped thousands of security
guards join the labour movement. Security is a growing slice of the
economy defined by small workplaces and plenty of contingent, part-time
casual and short-term workers who need union representation. At the same
time, the overall industry is dominated by ever-larger corporations. It
has a rare employer-client-workers relationship that parallels similar
relationships in the building-cleaning sector a slice of the U.S.
economy that has been the source of strong growth for the Service
Employees International Union.
In the security sector (like the cleaning sector), employees provide
security services for a specific client, such as an office building or
factory. These clients have a great degree of power with the security
company. They can quickly end their contracts with the security company,
and security guards often identify as much with the client as with the
security companies that employ them. As well, clients are often large
corporations, such as manufacturing companies, real estate/building
owners, etc. Their role and status allow unions some key leverage in
The security sector offered us the chance to build large, region- and
province-wide bargaining units com-posed of dozens (and in some cases
hundreds) of separate and small worksites. Contrast that model with
trying to organize a fast-food chain by organizing and bargaining for
one franchise at a time and the difference in effectiveness is clear.
We share Bill’s admirable dreams for new forms of representation for
contingent, part-time casual and short-term workers. But with so many
pressures on trade unions, such projects will remain purely utopian
without high-level political commitment from Canadian labour leadership
and strong support from the rank-and-file.
It all comes back to the question of whether our movement is really up
to the challenges posed in the articles in this series. Implicit in
Bill’s quiet suggestions for “councils of several unions” and “concerted
action” is an awareness of a big problem the inability of unions in
Canada to break out of their laissez-faire competitive mode of
organizing, and to move in a serious way toward joint strategies, action
and collaboration. Right now, large, sophisticated organizations (our
own among them) are spending colossal resources against each other at
labour boards, and on the ground, trying to organize the same groups of
workers, or on displacement efforts, or other often unproductive
activities. Rival union inside-committees guarantee that organizing
efforts will fail in dozens of workplaces. This is particularly galling
when one realizes that 75 per cent of all organizing in Ontario in
2000-2001 was carried out by only 10 different unions.
If one small portion of the human, financial, strategic, communications,
and legal resources expended by those 10 unions against each other’s
efforts was redirected toward a regime of collaborative strategies,
whether structured by jurisdiction or in some other way, the results
would be enormous. (And think what might result if other unions caught
the organizing bug.)
The Canadian Labour Congress could be the natural site of a joint
organizing mega-project, but, in the absence of political will in the
labour movement, this, too, is likely a utopian fantasy. It may be more
realistic to argue for informal agreements among individual affiliates
to come together and get down to the real work of growing our ranks.
Our point is simply that, without some refocusing by unions on
organizing as our common cause, all of the other good ideas that
organizers have about workplace sizes, neutrality agreements and
centralized strategies can only be pursued in diffuse and one-off ways.
Bill’s useful article reminds us of the enormous untapped pool of
strength waiting for labour among the thousands of working people who
would join a union tomorrow if they could. Just imagine the
possibilities. First, we have to give our heads a good shake.
Brad James and David Mackenzie work for the United Steelworkers. The views expressed here are their own.
The Ontario Labour Relations Board statistics were taken from “The Decline in Trade Union Certification in Ontario: From Bad to Worse,” a report presented by Elizabeth Mitchell and Ron Lebi, at the Fourth Annual Southwestern Ontario Labour and Employment Law Conference, May 29, 2003.