Organizing At A Crossroads
A Good News, Bad News Story
For most of the last 10 years, management at the Freightliner Sterling truck plant in St. Thomas, Ontario, was none too pleased with the idea of the plant’s 1,100 workers joining a union. In fact, the company let its feelings be known, and organizing attempts were successfully fought off. But the plant is a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler, which, in the fall of 2002, was negotiating a new agreement with the Canadian Auto Workers union. The CAW found itself in a respectful negotiating relationship with one level of the company, and facing fierce resistance to unionization from another. By making the link for Daimler Chrysler, the union won a commitment that the company would remain neutral in the organizing drive at Freightliner. Union organizers were prepared for a longer campaign, but, in seven days, 70 per cent of the workers had signed up. The union was certified on October 8, 2002. Less than two weeks later, an eight-hour car drive and a world away, a dozen cleaners at the Carlingwood Mall in Ottawa learned that they were losing their jobs. The company that held the cleaning con-tract with Local 4266 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represented the workers, was being replaced by a non-union company, paying just above minimum wage. One of the workers had been cleaning for 20 years. When the local labour movement heard about the cleaners’ plight, the response was unprecedented. A community rally of several hundred was organized, as well as a boycott. Within three weeks, the workers had a new contract and their jobs back. These two events, hap-pening on the heels of one another, put a face on key challenges that are being faced by the Canadian labour movement today. One story is about organizing a large industrial workplace. The other is about holding on in a small workplace in the service sector. Both reveal the challenges to getting, and staying, organized. More importantly, they show how the labour movement can respond and win. And thinking about winning is vital when you look at the state of organizing in Canada, and realize what it might mean for the future of the movement. Organizing in Canada today is both a good-news and a bad-news story. The good news is that workers in Canada want to join unions, and they do so readily when given a chance. Unions in Canada are doing better than unions in most countries, and we are starting to embrace some new approaches. And we are well-positioned to face the challenges ahead. The bad news is that we’re stuck. Our rate of unionization is not growing and, because of changes underway in the economy, we’re on the edge of a possible steep decline. The Canadian labour movement can’t really go forward—or even stay as strong as it is—without unions making some fundamental changes in our approach and strategies. Declaring that the labour movement needs to focus on organizing is a no-brainer. Of course we need to organize. But we also need to be cautious about pursuing more members as a cure-all. Recent experiences south of the border show that too much focus on organizing can sometimes undermine efforts in other areas of union work. Simply having more members is not enough to build and maintain a strong, democratic, vibrant labour movement. But, then again, no one will argue that we can make advances with fewer members. And on a more basic level, as long as there are workers in need of a union, then our mission is far from complete. We must always remember that unions exist to improve workers’ daily lives, install a measure of democracy at work, and build the capacity for workers to change our communities for the better. By all measures, the Canadian labour movement is now at a crossroads. The question is: will we rise to the challenge. THE GOOD NEWS Let me tell you the good news first—and there is actually plenty of it. Because we’ve been hearing dire predictions about the labour movement’s impending demise for decades now, we tend to believe the worst about the future. But the real story about Canada’s labour movement is one of vibrancy and staying power. When it comes to getting and staying organized, the Canadian record is remarkable. Most observers agree that the mid-1970s marked a turning point in the Canadian and other industrial economies. This was the so-called beginning of the end of the post-war boom, and the start of many big changes. The story of the last two-and-a-half decades is well known: the Canadian economy moved from being based largely on full-time manufacturing and resource jobs (and a mostly male workforce), to one increasingly service-based and defined by more and more part-time work. As well, the number of women in the paid labour force grew dramatically; there was much technological change, two recessions, and more than four million jobs were created as our country grew. On top of this, we saw the rise of virulent neo-conservative ideas and governments, and their resulting attacks on the labour movement. Just about the only thing that didn’t change throughout this period of massive transition was the level of unionization. In 1976, Canada’s rate of unionization was 32 per cent. Today, two-and-a-half decades later, our rate of unionization stands at 32 per cent. And throughout this period, the level of unionization never really grew by more than a few percentage points, and never fell below today’s level. If anything, we should win an award for consistency. Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re not organizing. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. We’ve been organizing hard just to keep up. Every year we lose thousands of members through workplace closures and major layoffs, particularly in the private sector. And, as some sectors of the economy have grown, adding members simply means keeping up. Labour board statistics from across the country reveal that around 50,000 workers are newly certified every year. That’s about 1,000 a week. Canadians are expert organizers. The Canadian labour movement is also truly a champ from a global perspective. While we’ve largely managed to ride out the upheavals in the world of work in the last few decades, labour’s presence has been hit hard in many industrial economies around the world. Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. unionization rate has been cut in half, standing at just 13 per cent last year. And since the mid-1980s, France, Germany, the UK, Australia, and Japan have all seen their union membership fall dramatically, by 20 to 50 per cent. Their unionization rates are all now below that of Canada’s (ranging from just nine per cent in France to 29 per cent in Germany). Of course, there are real differences in how these numbers are counted in each country, and the laws in many European countries mean that collective agreements are sometimes applied to all workers in a sector, not just union members. But there can be no disagreement that the last few decades have seen union membership fall dramatically in many countries. So, from a global vantage point, holding our own in Canada is even more remarkable. We’re also more organized than we think. As every shop steward and organizer knows, being sure who’s in (and who’s out of) a bargaining unit is a big deal. But, when it comes to trying to figure out how strong or weak our labour movement is, we don’t seem to pay much attention to this. Many Canadians are legally excluded from joining a union, including managers, most supervisors, human resources staff, most doctors, many engineers and lawyers, and, in some provinces, agricultural workers. When you add up these groups, you get about 1.2 million Canadians who, by law, are not allowed to unionize. This means that the unionization rate among eligible workers is currently closer to 37 per cent, not 32 per cent. So what does all this mean? It means Canadians really want to join unions, especially if given half a chance, and they sign up every day. The Canadian labour movement has weathered tremendous changes; we’re champs on the international scene, and; we’re more organized than we think. But before anyone puts their feet up and gets too relaxed, there is the bad news—and a fair amount of it. THE BAD NEWS While our ability to maintain Canada’s level of unionization is good news, it is also bad news. It means we’re simply not making progress. In large part, we have yet to succeed in bringing unions to many who desperately need them, or truly expanding into some of the biggest sectors of the economy. Certainly, we’ve made some important gains in places, and are working hard. But in terms of overall advances, we’re treading water. And that’s not all. The latest trends suggest something potentially much more troubling. While unions in Canada have managed to hold their own for the last 25 years, changes in the job market indicate that we’re heading for a fall. Jobs are being created mostly in sectors with low unionization, such as hospitality (hotels, restaurants), personal and business services (copy shops, temp agencies), and trade (retail stores). Down the road, these fast-growing sectors will represent an ever-greater share of jobs, while a shrinking proportion of jobs will be found in areas with traditionally higher levels of unionization, such as manufacturing, resources and public administration. Looking forward, even if we manage to maintain current unionization levels in the sectors where we are (and this is not a given), without a significant boost in organizing in the growing sectors of the economy, no one should be surprised to see a 25-per-cent unionization rate within the decade. And there is nothing on the horizon to suggest that this trend will simply turn around. This could have serious consequences. When one leg breaks, the whole chair falls down. In sectors such as manufacturing, where the rate of unionization has dropped from 45 per cent 25 years ago to 33 per cent today, we’re seeing new downward pressure coming not only from outside our borders, but increasingly from unorganized workplaces in our own backyard. And a falling level of unionization is not just a problem for the private sector. The last decade, in particular, has seen one emboldened swipe after another against public sector workers, coming from all levels of government. And today’s critical struggle against privatization largely sees public sector workers being threatened by lower wages and working conditions found in unorganized companies in the private sector. A central goal of unions everywhere is to organize enough of an industry so that unionized workers set the standard, taking organized and unorganized workers out of competition with each other. The magic number needed to do this may be somewhat less than 50 per cent, but it is clear that, below a certain threshold, union workers no longer set the pattern. The same changes in the job market that will lead to a decline in overall unionization also mean that a growing proportion of union members will find themselves in sectors where unions do not set the agenda. This is not only trouble for making gains at the bargaining table; it is also a barrier to turning things around by getting more workers organized. A good measure of the attraction of a union to unorganized workers is the idea that a union can make gains. As former Canadian Labour Congress president Bob White famously said, “Workers don’t need a union to go backwards; they can do that on their own.” If unions are increasingly made up of members in sectors where they don’t set the pattern, then a vicious downward spiral develops: gains are hampered because the sector is not organized enough, and organizing is hampered because organizers can’t demonstrate the advantages of joining a union. We need to be clear: unions in Canada have not been sitting around doing nothing. We’ve worked hard to organize and had good success. Canada’s labour movement is still in very good shape. But the tide is starting to turn and now is the time to act, before a crisis hits. THE CHALLENGE When we hear about these sorts of downward trends, we typically respond with the whole-hearted call: “Organize!” But too often we leave it at that. Two features of the task at hand mean that we can’t just go out and organize the way we always have. First, size is critical. To make any real gains, unions have got to forge a serious strategy for organizing smaller workplaces. More than half of Canada’s unorganized workers—some 4.8 million workers—are in workplaces with less than 50 employees, where there is only about a 15 per cent chance of being organized. The truth is, we’ve already organized most of the big workplaces. Among workplaces with 500 or more employees, nearly 60 per cent are organized, and, in terms of potential for growth, fewer than one in 10 of the unorganized are found in these larger workplaces. Smaller workplaces pose many challenges in terms of providing services, developing functioning committees, and getting bargaining strength. But if unions are serious about making gains, we must find solutions. The second feature of the task at hand is facing up to the specific challenges of the largely unorganized sectors. Nearly two-thirds of Canada’s unorganized workers are concentrated in four key areas: retail and wholesale trade (1.8 million unorganized); hospitality (1.3 million unorganized); finance (670,000 unorganized); and, perhaps surprisingly, manufacturing (1.4 million unorganized). With the exception of manufacturing, organizers face the double-barrelled challenge of organizing small workplaces in sectors where there is no major union presence.(Except for manufacturing, these sectors have unionization rates of between 10 per cent and 15 per cent.) These specific challenges mean that we can’t go about our business as usual. And, if we’re not going to seriously consider a new level of concerted action, or different approaches, then, at some point, we will start to forfeit the right to complain about stagnant or falling rates of unionization. WHAT CAN WE DO? We need to be honest: there is no single, magic solution. The challenges are many, and so, too, are the solutions. It is clear that more of the same won’t be enough. But we’re not entirely without guidance. There are some concrete strategies and on-the-ground examples that offer a way forward. Each requires some adjustment in the labour movement’s thinking. But now is the time to think big. BARGAIN TO ORGANIZE To break the logjam in some areas, we can use the power where we’ve got it. Too often, union representatives find themselves trying to build a respectful relationship with an employer in one workplace, while facing aggressive anti-union tactics when trying to organize another workplace owned by the same company—or a workplace at its subsidiary, or its suppliers, or other members of the company’s broader “corporate family.” But we do have some power to change this. We can start using the strength we’ve got within one hotel chain, retail chain, or manufacturing company, to negotiate “neutrality agreements.” With a neutrality agreement, an employer agrees to be truly neutral in an organizing drive, meaning the company won’t force one-on-one meetings with the workers, won’t issue anti-union statements or make veiled threats, and won’t hire union-busting consultants. These agreements typically provide the workers with access to union representatives, and certification is based upon signing up a majority of the workers. Ensuring real neutrality on the part of employers gives workers a true democratic choice, and is entirely possible within existing laws. Successful examples of this approach are mounting, many coming from the United States. Using neutrality agreements, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE) has organized extensively among hotel chains, including the Holiday Inn, Hyatt, Ramada, and Four Seasons. The United Auto Workers (UAW) has done the same in auto parts (ZF Industries, Johnson Controls), as have the Steelworkers in glass manufacturing (LOF Glass), and the Communication Workers of America (CWA) in telecommunications (Bell Atlantic, Verizon). And here at home, the CAW has successfully made use of a neutrality agreement at the Freightliner truck plant. These experiences show, over and over, that workers sign up in droves when given a real choice. At a time when the broader issue of democracy is on the progressive agenda, ensuring that workers have a real right to join a union remains crucial. CENTRALIZE Moving forward, and not just treading water, also means unions must think about how we represent workers. For many unions, the problem of organizing smaller workplaces is like the problem faced by a dog chasing a car: What does she do when she catches it? We must challenge, head-on, the problems unions face once we’ve organized a smaller workplace. How do unions effectively represent smaller groups? How do we overcome the fact 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? How do we get a decent negotiations committee together when it means including half the membership? How do we negotiate time off for union activities? How do we build a functioning local union from small bargaining units? How can we get any power at the bargaining table and make gains? The solution is simple, but no small task: centralize, centralize, centralize. To tackle the problems of smaller workplaces, we can centralize some of our bargaining and representation structures. In many respects, the drive to centralize is as old as the hills. It was one of the original organizing principles of industrial unions in the 1930s: co-ordinate and centralize in order to take labour out of competition. But today we have many stand-alone units going at it largely by themselves, particularly in the sectors that need the most organizing. Changing this means saying that we’re going to negotiate “master” or “pattern” agreements that apply, for example, to all restaurant workers in Toronto, all retail workers in Vancouver, across light manufacturing in Southern Ontario, or to all car dealerships in the Atlantic provinces. Many forms could evolve. As a starting point, unions could tighten co-ordination where they represent several units with one employer. Experience shows that centralized bargaining makes it easier to make gains. It would also make it easier for workers in the tens of thousands of now unorganized, smaller workplaces to sign on. This implies a move toward bargaining with councils of employers, and even councils of several unions. At times, we’ve done this in the past, and it could be time to do it again. The model most unions are working with today was designed around big workplaces with stable workforces. It is time to push the envelope once again. No one can say this will be easy, but if we pursue this strategy, maybe a bargaining unit of “General Shopping Mall Workers”—representing, and bargaining for, all workers in a given mall—won’t be far behind. CREATE A NEW MIX When unions succeed at organizing, they end up with exclusive bargaining rights for all the workers in a bargaining unit. And when we fail, organizers usually go home, and the workers are left without an organization. This model has been the foundation of our movement, and has been critical for union security in those industries where unions have been able to gain a foothold. But what about the masses of workers in industries marked by contingent, part-time, casual and short-term work, where there are very low levels of unionization? Can we create a new mix of organizing and representation to help gain a foothold here, and pave the way for future organizing? Is there any form of organization that we can build that is somewhere in-between having no organization and having a full-blown union? Can we create serious membership-based organizations to uphold standards in wages, hours of work, and health and safety, and to engage in community organizing? We’ve already seen some examples along these lines, including the Canadian Union of Postal Workers? (CUPW) storefront centre called the Winnipeg Workers Organizing Resource Centre, as well as the CAW’s earlier efforts with a storefront workers centre in Toronto. Most famously, there is the example of the “Justice for Janitors” movements in the U.S., spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Each of these initiatives combined organizing in the broadest sense with representation work. While the outcomes have been somewhat uneven, they clearly show promise and serve as something to build upon. Creating this new kind of mix takes a longterm commitment and some resources, and won’t be easy. But it provides a concrete way to connect with the workers most in need of organizing, and to develop a larger activist project. So where does this leave us? A look at the state of union organizing in Canada tells us that our labour movement has done remarkably well, and that we should take pride in our history of being able to ride out the waves of change over the last 25 years. But the signs ahead don’t look good, and tell us that we’re now at a crossroads. Moving forward, whether for truck-plant workers or mall cleaners, will mean doing things differently. But it will also provide an opportunity for renewed activism. The solutions on offer are tough, but we need to ask ourselves: If not this, then what?
Bill Murnighan works in the Canadian Auto Workers’ research department. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.