Over the labour day weekend, Unifor — the largest private sector union in the country representing about 300,000 workers across 20 industries — held its founding convention in Toronto.
Formed after the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) union merged, the move signals a cultural shift in the labour movement.
By harnessing the resources of both groups, Unifor will be in a better position to spread its message into uncharted territory rather than only to repair the hit many unions have taken over the last few decades.
On the docket for rookie national president Jerry Dias, former assistant to CAW president Ken Lewenza, is the recruitment of non-traditional members, such as young workers.
“Young workers are coming to us. If you take a look at what’s going on, young people feel betrayed. They’re furious. They’re saying, ‘Listen if I’m going to be stuck here for a few years, stuck here working for some of the wealthiest corporations, then I’m just not going to accept minimum wage,’” Dias said. “Look at what young people are doing. They’re organizing at Second Cup coffee shops; look at the student movement in Quebec, frankly it played a role in the toppling of the Charest government, there’s no question about that; the Occupy movement — young people have had it, they’re not going to take it.”
And just as Unifor bills itself as a union for everyone, outgoing CAW president Lewenza (who will now serve as a retired advisor) added the key to growth lies in community outreach programs, such as holding chapter meetings for non-union members looking to organize.
“That should give us more opportunity to build relationships of respect and camaraderie, where people can see the union as a tool for their own progress through community chapters,” he explained.
But a merger of this magnitude could do more damage than good, according to Simon Mortimer, a labour and employment lawyer at Toronto-based law firm, Hicks Morley.
“When I first heard of the merger, I thought that this will be very interesting, as these two unions have very distinct cultures,” Mortimer said. “The CAW has traditionally been a very centralized, top-down decision-making organization, whereas the CEP has always been decentralized. When I first heard the announcement, I thought they would have difficulty merging those two cultures. I wasn’t sure if it would come to fruition — I think they’ve done well to get to this point.”
The union merger itself has been the source of most, if not all, membership growth in the past two decades. Mortimer explained that because of dwindling membership numbers across the private sector, unions have no choice but to acquire smaller unions or merge and join forces to combine resources and manpower to stay afloat.
But bigger isn’t always better. Of particular concern is that the voices of individual workers might get lost. Mortimer cautioned Unifor to first focus on the members who actually pay their dues.
“While unions have gotten larger, the overall membership numbers have continued to decline. I think it provides them with economies of scale on the union side — so that their purchasing power for the members is enhanced — but I don’t believe it has made their product more attractive,” he said. “I think there has been a shift for the union that is directly connected to employees, where individual employees, or at least smaller groups of employees thought they had a voice. As they get larger, the actual ability for individual employees to be heard is clearly diminished. Certainly most employers are smaller than the union, so an employer is more likely to hear what employees want.”
Those concerns are certainly on Unifor’s radar. Dias explained the first item on the new mega-union’s agenda is to organize forces in their own backyard to ease the transition.
“Small unions today, they just don’t have the infrastructure, they really don’t have the money or the clout to really play a role in the broader trade union movement,” he said. “They do a good job in their workplaces, they do a good job representing their members at the bargaining table. But the trade union movement is much more than the individual bargaining day-to-day taking care of members’ problems — it’s about a movement, about being progressive. It’s about having an impact on politics that negatively impact workers.”
As such, Dias foretells of the union merger becoming increasingly more common. For instance, at the end of September, the United Steelworkers and Telecommunications Workers Union reached a tentative merger agreement. Should the two unite, it would become the country’s second largest union.
For Lewenza, a merger is nothing CAW and CEP workers aren’t already equipped to handle, explaining that both are the product of numerous mergers over the years.
“It’s not just the resources, it’s the human potential. I mean, of course, we’re combining our strike fund, we’re in a much better position if an employer takes us on. We are really now, which we weren’t prior to this discussion, going to be a dominant union,” he said. “It’s been a tough five or six years. The unions have been on defence, and have had little opportunity to play offence. This gives us the confidence that we’re stronger in numbers, we’re stronger in revenue — but I can’t emphasize enough how much stronger we’re going to be with the human potential in both organizations, from the staff to the local union leadership, to the activists.”
This story appears in the Sept. 10 print issue of Canadian Labour Reporter.
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