Despite repeated attempts to weaken them, unions have always played a decisive role in fostering and defending jobs workers can rely on – jobs that promote their health and well-being, provide decent wages, a secure retirement, stable work hours along with skills training, personal development and quality of life.
Good jobs are the cornerstone of a fair and resilient economy, one that can better adapt to change and withstand unprecedented crises. However, goods jobs are not a sure thing. They do not just happen.
Workers negotiate and fight for them, and unions play an integral part in this work, all too often in the face of unjust labour laws, obstruction and well-financed tactics aiming to reduce their effectiveness.
All workers in Canada have a right to good union jobs. Achieving this objective means all workers must have the ability to organize and to bargain collectively. It starts with fair labour laws that protect the rights of workers. Governments must pass and enforce laws that guarantee a level playing field so that workers can negotiate better and safer working conditions. Workers’ engagement in politics, through unions, is a vital part of Canada’s democracy. It helps them share in the country’s economic recovery.
The federal government must ensure stability and fairness for workers in the post-pandemic recovery. That means recognizing unions are key to preserving and advancing good working conditions, raising wages, promoting equality and ensuring workers share in the economic prosperity.
The next federal government should:
- Extend collective bargaining rights and workplace protections to all workers, including freelance workers, gig workers, seasonal workers and temporary workers by introducing “broad-based bargaining” concepts into the federal sector and, where necessary, in coordination with provinces;
- Amend the Canada Labour Code to address gaps for gig workers’ rights and prohibit employer’s use of scab workers, especially in the case of employer lockouts and bring into force the equal treatment amendments which prohibit wage differences based on employment status;
- Provide sufficient resources to the Pay Equity Commissioner and Pay Equity Unit to ensure smooth and effective implementation of the Act, including staffing of officers to provide mediation, conciliation and alternative dispute resolution services;
- Support the Employment Equity Act Review Task Force with timely implementation of improvements to the legislation, and better enforcement of current legislation in the meantime;
- Ensure federal dollars are used in contracts with unionized employers that have an exemplary record observing labour and employment laws, pay living wages and where firms do not engage in outsourcing or offshoring.
- The share of gig workers in Canada increased from almost 1 million workers (5.5%) in 2005 to about 1.7 million workers (8.2%) in 2016.
- In 2020, only about 1 in 10 of all Canadian workers from the wholesale, retail trade, accommodation, food services and other services were unionized.
- A 2021 Unifor study has shown that the use of replacement workers drags out labour disputes six-times longer, on average.
- Women working in Canada make, on average, 69 cents for every dollar earned by men when comparing annual earnings for both full-time and part-time workers.
Workers organizing through unions is still the surest way to make any job a good job. Throughout the 20th century, workers organized in major industrial and service sectors, forming unions, and securing higher wages, benefits and other protections. This is still the case today.
Despite unionization rates hovering steady, at around 30% of the workforce, unions are at the forefront of improving wages (including by influencing minimum wage, health and safety and pay equity laws), protecting work hours, promoting equity, defending human rights, and more. Workers continue to reach new goals despite relentless attacks by conservative governments and business groups to undermine unions and the work they do.
Canada is less than a decade-removed from perhaps the most aggressive push of any federal government to dismantle unions in this country, spearheaded by the Conservatives under Stephen Harper. Veterans of that government, such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, have taken that same fight into the provinces – suggesting unions, that have a duty to represent workers, have no place in Canada’s political affairs; that is space reserved for corporate lawyers, and business lobbyists. Unions, including Unifor, continue to push back.
Even in the comparatively conservative-minded United States, talk of union rights is evolving. So much so, that President Biden is actively advocating for more workers joining unions, including through legislation strengthening organizing rights. A special U.S. task force is exploring new models of collective bargaining, to expand union coverage. Congress is requiring infrastructure dollars flow through to union workplaces, including a proposal for rebates to customers who buy union-made electric cars. It is clear that good, safe, union jobs must factor into economic recovery plans, in Canada and abroad.
As Canadian workers continue to adapt to a fast-paced technologically driven economy, worrying trends are compounding in the job market. For many workers, productivity gains are not translating into greater benefits. Progress on pay equity is not moving nearly fast enough, as working women still do not earn their fair share. Precarious, temporary and “gig”-based jobs are growing at a faster pace than permanent, full-time jobs and increasing reliance on offshoring contributes to unstable, unhealthy work environments.
Federal labour laws must keep up. Recent efforts to modernize the Canada Labour Code yielded some positive results, although extensive exemptions for businesses leave many workers no better off than they were before. Much more needs doing. The Code must address status issues for gig workers, and offer them new protections to advance their rights, including the right to collective bargaining.
The Code also lacks meaningful anti-scab provisions, which unfairly limits a union’s ability to advance the working conditions of members. For women, Indigenous people, members of racialized groups, and people with disabilities, governments must redouble efforts to ensure legislated Pay Equity and Employment Equity deliver on their objectives in the workplace.
The pandemic also exposed Canada’s neglect of critical manufacturing sectors, a traditional source of good union jobs. Safeguarding national industrial capacity and the good paying, community-building jobs that come with it must be closely tied to any recovery strategy. Likewise, Canada should leverage infrastructure investments and financing models to deliver more for workers by maximizing the use of local assets and favouring union companies and those that pay living wages.