Opinion

A Bold Vision For Canada’s Unions

With private sector unionization stalled, it’s time to look for a new way to rally workers.

By Matt Price 19 Oct 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Matt Price has 20 years of experience with campaigns across North America and is the author of Engagement Organizing, published by UBC Press. Find him on Twitter @Price_J_Matt .

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The basics of union organizing haven’t changed much since the days of Ginger Goodwin. Photo: Cumberland Museum and Archives.

When researching the union chapter in my recent book Engagement Organizing: The Old Art and New Science of Winning ,two numbers really stood out.

First is the fact that 85 per cent of private sector jobs in Canada are non-unionized. Most of the public sector is unionized, so the overall rate sounds higher, but the bottom line is that Canadian unions today have no direct relationship with the vast majority of the private workforce.

Second is an outdated but nevertheless startling number: an older study found that it cost on average $1,000 to unionize a new worker, a number which is probably closer to $1,500 to $2,000 today. This is a problem because today’s service economy has smaller workplaces with lower wages, so an expensive organizing drive under those conditions, even if successful, will result in fewer members, each paying less in dues, yielding a long time to recover organizing costs or even a negative return on investment.

The two numbers are clearly related and represent, in a nutshell, labour’s main challenge for this generation. Is the union organizing model, as designed in the last century, even financially workable anymore outside the public sector and a small corner of the private sector?

Unions are aware of this conundrum and are responding in a variety of ways.

One is to try to bring down organizing costs with things like “card check” certification that simplifies the unionization process.

Another is to shift with the definition of union “membership” so that a worker may not need to be covered by a collective agreement to be part of a union, thereby making affiliation less onerous.

Yet I can’t help thinking the scale of ambition hasn’t yet reached anywhere near the scale of the problem. Something much more dramatic needs to happen for unions to engage a majority of private sector workers anytime soon.

And new tools, combined with the significant resources that Canadian unions have at their disposal, mean something more ambitious is indeed possible.

The new model I’m thinking of will be familiar to labour organizers, even if it sounds crazy at first.

A “hot shop” is a desirable situation in labour organizing. It’s a job site where workers are already interested in forming a union. They have laid the foundation themselves by working together to identify workplace issues, persuading others that unionization is a solution, and doing the basic recruitment and organizing required — tasks that a union would otherwise have to pay somebody to do if it was starting from scratch. A union then helps seal the deal and has a less expensive organizing drive under its belt.

Here’s the big idea at something like the necessary scale of ambition: what if unions could turn the entire country into something like a hot shop?

Not literally in that every workplace would be ready to go, but metaphorically in that a foundation is laid with a critical mass of the Canadian working population mapped (a union term for analyzing relationships), persuaded, recruited and trained to work for goals consistent with labour objectives, whether in the workplace, the community or the ballot box.

Sounds huge and unachievable, yes? Well, others are already doing elements of this work. In some ways, it’s time for unions to catch up.

For example, Canada’s main political parties, which have much smaller budgets than many unions, have databases that include every voting age Canadian. Yes, they have access to the voters list to help create and update their data, but unions could also build a similar resource with commercial datasets and add to it with individualized data from their own member lists and through targeted outreach.

Such a dataset would give unions a more clear picture of their broader organizing universe, a window not just into who their existing members are and what they care about, but also into the 85 per cent of private sector workers who they currently don’t have a relationship with. It would help them target, segment and track potential members or supporters in every town and city and in many workplaces. 

It would be an incredible resource for any individual union embarking on a workplace organizing drive. With demographic data overlaid, it would be like workplace mapping on steroids. This would cost several million dollars and require unions to collaborate on data, but those challenges are solvable.

And, with much smaller budgets than unions could bring to bear, Canadian NGOs have already pioneered methods to begin relationships with literally millions of citizens. Digital tools help do this at scale and at a low cost of entry if people are given a reason to opt in. What is the labour equivalent of Avaaz or SumOfUs that is focused on issues of precarious work, fairness and justice? 

And, why couldn’t unions mimic groups like ACORN that develop supporters into community leaders at a fraction of the $1,500 to $2,000 per person cost mentioned above? Workers brought in on this track may not have collective agreements, but they could still pool together for certain benefits like common insurance plans.

With enough resources, co-operation and several years time, it’s possible that Canadian unions could add another three million worker “supporters” to their existing four and a half million members.

Together that’s about one out of every four adults in Canada, which would be a pro-union beachhead into almost every workplace and a political force to fight and vote for progressive policy at every level of government. It would be like a country-wide hot shop, or at least a warmed up one, thereby reducing traditional workplace unionizing costs.

Such a grand plan would require unprecedented co-operation among Canadian unions that often see one another as competitors. Strong leadership would be needed to set this up at a common home like the Canadian Labour Congress, and to secure a multi-year funding commitment from all unions. All, since it floats all boats.

Yes, it’s a big, new idea that may not work. The alternative is the status quo or some alternate ambitious idea that I’d love to hear. Besides which, without risk taking, unions wouldn’t exist in the first place.  [Tyee]

Read more: Labour + Industry

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