Jim Sinclair thinks unions are stuck playing a new game with old rules.
That’s why the former BC Federation of Labour president wants to reshuffle the deck.
Sinclair is one of a growing number of labour leaders advocating for sectoral bargaining, a fundamental shift in how unions and workers achieve better wages, benefits and rights.
Today, unions bargain one-on-one with individual employers at individual workplaces.
But in sectoral bargaining, a council of employers and unions collectively negotiate a contract for an entire sector of workers — say in hospitality, fast food or any number of other industries. The base agreement covers non-unionized sites where people are doing similar work.
The result is that thousands of workers get a new minimum salary, benefits and protections, even if their individual workplace is not unionized.
It’s not a new idea, but it’s building steam. Last year, the BC Federation of Labour passed a resolution pledging to study different models of sectoral bargaining and to ask the provincial government to enable it across the province.
Proponents like Sinclair believe sectoral bargaining could reverse decades of losses for workers that coincided with the decline of private-sector union membership.
The current union model, Sinclair argues, is based on an economy that no longer exists.
“The work and the organization of work changed. The employment changed. But the Labour Code never changed,” Sinclair said.
Getting it done, observers agree, will not be easy. Employers generally oppose it. Some unions are skeptical. And even the BC NDP government has made no indication it will vouch for sectoral bargaining when it reviews the province’s Labour Code next year.
This is the case for sectoral bargaining in B.C. — and what it might take to make it happen.
“I think it will be a battle,” said Jim Stanford, a labour economist and the executive director of the Centre for Future Work. “It won’t be handed to workers on a silver platter, anywhere.”
New game, old rules
Imagine you were trying to unionize every Starbucks in British Columbia.
You wouldn’t be the first, or even the second. In the late 1990s, the Canadian Auto Workers launched a campaign to organize the iconic coffee chain across Vancouver. Today, that mission has been taken up by the United Steelworkers, part of a broader union drive at the company across Canada.
But both campaigns hit similar problems. For starters, it could take months to secure enough votes in a single location of 20-odd people. Starbucks responded to the organizing effort by raising salaries at other stores, undercutting the benefits of joining the union.
“What we did was in effect we ended up improving the wages and benefits for everyone in the province, but the turnover was such that most people didn’t know that,” said Jef Keighley, who worked for the Canadian Auto Workers during the original Starbucks drive in Vancouver.
“They had no idea that the generosity of Starbucks had in any way been tied to the union.”
Keighley said turnover at Starbucks locations was so high that it was hard to maintain a dedicated core of organizers. That’s a problem USW Local 2009 president Al Bieksa said his union is also having in its ongoing campaign.
“In the end, we ended up signing a collective agreement and administering the collective agreement, but it didn’t have any wages or benefits in any way shape or form superior to what Starbucks had elevated,” Keighley said.
The Starbucks case study illustrates why people like Sinclair want sectoral bargaining and why the current unionization structure has caused workers to fall behind.
Today’s union rules, Sinclair said, are based largely off the American National Relations Act, a piece of legislation passed in 1935. In those days and for much of the 20th century, Sinclair said, many jobs were in large, industrial worksites that could be relatively easily organized.
And once enough were unionized, Sinclair said, it raised the pay standards for every similar kind of business.
But today’s economy is radically different. Many manufacturing and resource jobs have disappeared or gone overseas. Many new jobs are temporary or part-time. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a report earlier this year arguing most British Columbians now have a “non-standard” job. “Gig work” is not new, but technology has enabled companies to skirt traditional employment rules to cut costs in a growing share of industries.
The result, Sinclair said, is that today’s labour rules are based on a set of industrial conditions that don’t exist today. Many British Columbians today work in a massive services sector and may hold those jobs for a brief period of time.
And even if a workplace is organized, Stanford says there’s no guarantee unions can meaningfully change working conditions in the sector as a whole. They may have to organize hundreds of cafés, hotels, warehouses and other worksites in order to meaningfully change the median standard of work and pay, which could take months or years. And in the meantime, businesses may choose to simply shut down unionized workplaces to cut costs.
“How do you make progress? You are going to be trying to raise wages and working conditions at one café. Across the street, here’s another café that doesn’t have to do that. And in a competitive lower-margin business, that can be an insurmountable barrier,” Stanford said.
Canada isn’t the only country grappling with this. Last year, New Zealand passed the Fair Pay Agreements Act.
In essence, the law allows unions to apply to the country’s government to start bargaining a sectoral agreement for an entire sector of workers, unionized and non-unionized.
“They’re struggling with the same kind of economic difficulties and changes in forums of work that we’re dealing with,” said York University law professor Sara Slinn.
Foremost, Slinn said, is that a huge number of workers don’t have a realistic prospect of unionization, and therefore less collective input into how their workplace runs.
Slinn and Mark Rowlinson, a Toronto lawyer who previously represented USW, are the co-authors of a report proposing a version of New Zealand’s law could be implemented in Canada.
The law is fairly simple. If a union gets signatures from 500 workers in a given sector or from 10 per cent of that sector’s workforce, it can apply to the government to start negotiating a collective agreement for that sector. That bargaining is done between a group of involved unions and a group representing employers.
The government can also unilaterally start a negotiation in a given sector if it meets a “public interest test,” which includes low wages.
Once a deal is reached, it is ratified if both a majority of employees and participating employers vote in favour. For employers, the votes are weighted to favour smaller businesses. Once ratification is complete, employees at those businesses aren’t members of a union, but still reap the benefits of the new contract.
New Zealand isn’t an outlier. Many European countries like France have done sectoral bargaining for decades. Generally, it’s associated with higher wages, better retention and even improved productivity.
In Slinn and Rowlinson’s proposed model for Canada, the trigger to start negotiating a deal would be lower than New Zealand. Contracts, Slinn said, could be tailored to specific geographic areas to account for the cost of living.
Slinn said the model also wouldn’t replace conventional union bargaining: she says unions should still be able to organize workplaces to negotiate deals above what a sectoral agreement provides.
“What we’re really talking about is something that would address low pay barriers where workers, for a variety of reasons, don’t have a realistic prospect of unionization,” Slinn said.
Sectoral bargaining isn’t new or radical in Canada, either. Decades ago, government wage boards set baseline salaries in various industries. Film and TV actors across Canada already do sectoral bargaining, as they are constantly moving between different sets run by different employers. Quebec’s “decree” system allows it to select certain industries in certain regions that benefit from sectoral bargaining, such as car dealerships in the greater Montreal area.
In the early 1990s, a B.C. government committee suggested implementing sectoral bargaining for industries where unionization was seen as difficult or unlikely.
At the time, Sinclair recalls the BC Federation of Labour was advised by the BC NDP government of the day they could either have that or new legislation to ban replacement workers during a strike. They chose the replacement worker ban in a vote that was decided by a single ballot.
In hindsight, Sinclair says it was likely the wrong choice. “When they were talking about it, most of us didn’t know what it was,” Sinclair said.
'Employers don't want it'
But now sectoral bargaining is back in vogue, at least in some circles. Slinn was one of the special auditors in Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review from 2017, where sectoral bargaining arose as a possibility. New Zealand’s law, Slinn said, has reignited interest in the idea, since Canada has a broadly comparable legal system and culture.
“We’re certainly having more substantial discussions about it,” Slinn said.
But everyone agrees that making sectoral bargaining a reality would be a political feat.
The biggest reason is the most obvious. “Employers don’t want it,” Stanford said.
Any Canadian jurisdiction looking to implement it would likely face backlash from business groups, Rowlinson said. “I think governments are reluctant to really push for a more radical labour law reform because these issues become very rapidly politicked and are often vociferously opposed by the business class.”
“You would undoubtably hear corporate interests saying, well, how do you expect us to compete? How are we supposed to compete with the U.S.?” Rowlinson said.
Some unions are skeptical about sectoral bargaining, too.
Keighley says the problem is that workers who benefit from sectoral bargaining don’t necessarily see themselves as part of the labour movement, since they haven’t gone through the work of organizing.
B.C. is the only province in Canada with an NDP government. Last year, they implemented “card check” system for certification, making it easier to unionize a workplace.
But Slinn said that change isn’t enough to reverse the long-term trend in the private sector.
“I don’t know in 2023 if card check is going to make as much of a difference as it would have 10 years ago,” Slinn said.
“Sara is being diplomatic,” Rowlinson responded. “It’s not.”
B.C. is set to review its labour code next May.
A statement from the Labour Ministry said the government has not yet picked terms of reference for the review nor has it established a committee to look at sectoral bargaining.
But the BC Federation of Labour wants it to happen. In November, that group passed a resolution to “review international models of sectoral bargaining with recommendations to modernize B.C.’s Labour Code, make recommendations to the provincial government to enact sectoral bargaining in B.C., and encourage the Ministry of Labour to engage in a public education campaign to inform B.C. workers about workers’ rights and their right to organize.”
The federation didn’t return a request for comment and hasn’t set out an official position on what sectoral bargaining in B.C. should look like.
Slinn says that if unions want it, they’ll need a clear ask — and the will to make it a priority.
“I think what the fed is doing now is thinking carefully,” Slinn said. “If we really are serious with this, let’s come forward with some credible options.”