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Labour + Industry

Can an American Millennial Help Canada’s Unions?

Larry Williams Jr.’s UnionBase, described as Facebook for unions, looks to move across the border.

Jeremy Nuttall 4 Oct

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

During an Uber ride in Washington state, Larry Williams Jr. once convinced a skeptical driver his situation would be better if he was in a union.

When Williams first told the driver he was there on union business, the man told him he wasn’t interested in paying union dues.

“I explained to him those dues are an investment,” Williams said in a phone interview. “The gains of being in a union are tremendous and they can’t rob it from you.”

For the rest of the ride Williams, president of the Progressive Workers’ Union representing staff at the Sierra Club, kept explaining the benefits of being in a union.

“By the time we got out of the Uber he was like, ‘man, I wish I could join,’” Williams said with a chuckle.

If people understand the benefits of being in unions, they’re more likely to support them, he said. Communication is the key.

The energetic 29-year-old set out to take that communication to the next level in 2015 when he started UnionBase, a social media platform aimed at strengthening unions and their organizing efforts.

And now a Canadian version is part of his plans.

UnionBase has been described as a “Facebook for unions.” Williams said it also has elements of Twitter and LinkedIn and offers an online platform for unions, members and non-members to connect that will eventually facilitate organizing.

Members of the site can be verified by unions to ensure companies aren’t using it to spy on employees or gather information on organizing efforts.

Williams said companies have monitored internal email and created fake union pages to identify employees who might be trying to organize.

“We don’t know the scope of how bad that problem is,” Williams said. “But we do know that companies all over the world regularly spy on their employees.”

Williams said that’s just one of the challenges unions and workers face. Governments in the U.S. are pushing “right-to-work” legislation that lets employees in a unionized workplace opt out and stop paying dues.

“Make them understand the benefits,” he said. “When you know why you’re in a union and you know the value of that union, the power of that union, then nobody can convince you to stop paying dues.”

Taking the project north of the border makes sense, he said.

“A lot of the accomplishments that Canada has had to fight for are the same ones that we had to fight for,” Williams said.

More than 20 union locals and labour councils in Canada have expressed interest in the project, he said.

It’s a good idea, said Leo Panitch, a political science professor emeritus at Toronto’s York University.

Panitch said the Canadian labour movement is in a slump, and it’s part of a global problem.

According to StatsCan, between 1981 and 2014 union membership has fallen from 38 per cent to 29 per cent of Canadian workers. The number of women in unions has remained stable, but the unionization rate for men has plummeted from 42 per cent to 27 per cent.

At the same time income inequality has increased, particularly in major cities.

One reason for the decline in union membership is a lack of community among the working class, Panitch said. At one time people who worked in mills, factories and other unionized environments lived near their workplaces, often in the same neighbourhoods.

“Organizing could take place both in and around the place where they worked, but also in that neighbourhood,” Panitch said. “This has now vastly changed.”

Unions have not been able to cope with those kinds of societal changes, he said.

Labour groups are also not using enough organizers to build the movement, he added.

Panitch said an initiative like UnionBase has the potential to help combat the trend by creating an online community where people can talk to one another and organize.

But union culture will have to change to take advantage of the opportunities, he said. More young people will have to be hired in organizing jobs, and online efforts will need to be supported by action in workplaces.

Williams said it can be a challenge to explain to some younger workers, particularly in the tech sector, that they could benefit from a union. They associate unions with traditional industries.

But he points to the contract between his own union and the Sierra Club, which includes clauses about working from home. A contract can reflect the culture of a company and sector, he said.

“My generation is more open to flexible work schedules, they’re more open to switching a job if their job isn’t right,” he said.

Social media success

The social media model has been paying off for some unions.

An Irish union has successfully used social media to reach out to younger workers.

Dan O’Neill of the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union, the largest trade union in Ireland, pointed to the organization’s “Big Start” campaign, aimed at organizing child care workers.

Most workers in the field are young, female and dispersed in small workplaces all over the country rather than on one shop floor, O’Neill said.

Using Facebook, Twitter and NationBuilder, in two years the initiative has signed up 14,000 people who support the organizing campaign and has 5,000 Facebook followers.

“There is this idea always put out that young people aren’t joining unions, they don’t see the relevance of unions,” O’Neill said. “But we’re seeing that young people are still joining unions.”

He said 41 per cent of his unions new members are under 35.

Williams said Canada workers and unions can expect a UnionBase presence in early 2018.

“They are the next place we’d like to go,” he said. “We view them as a valuable part of the movement.”  [Tyee]

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