Union membership grew in size last year. But will the growth last?

Over the past 30 years the number of Canadian workers who are members of a union have gone down. In 1981, 38% of Canadian employees belonged to a union. Today, that number is only 30%. But last year, unionization rates went up by 1% in 2013. Although 1% may not seem like a big number, over a one-year period, it’s a pretty sizable increase.

Why did union membership increase last year? There are a few reasons. The main reason is the impact of the 2008 recession is starting to wear off. Private companies who employ unionized workers are starting to hire again. Federal and provincial governments are also collecting more tax revenue and have the money to hire more people to run our hospitals, care for the elderly in nursing homes, and deliver essential government services.

Does that mean unionization rates will continue to go up next year? Not necessarily. During the recession many workplaces closed down and relocated to other countries that don’t offer the same protections Canadian workers have. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence these jobs are coming back. That means Canadian labour unions need to focus more on organizing new workers. If we don’t, the labour movement will end up like the United States and France, where only 12% and 7% of workers are unionized, respectively.

Even though organizing is important, it’s still not enough. Right now our provincial labour laws gives far too much power to the employer. For example, 10 years ago the employees at Wal-Mart in Jonquière, Quebec, voted to join a union. What did Wal-Mart do? They shut the store down!

Years later the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Wal-Mart engaged in bad labour practices and will have to compensate their staff for closing the store. But it took 10 years. It should have happened much sooner. And compared to the profits Wal-Mart makes in any given year, the compensation they will hand out to their former employees will be minimal. Shutting down the worksite and paying a fine shouldn’t be the “cost of doing business.” Our laws should penalize companies sooner for this kind of behavior. This is just one of the ways our labour laws gives employers an unfair advantage.

In fact, we can make some simple changes to our labour laws that would make it much easier to form a union. First, if more than 50% of the employees in a workplace sign a union card, the unit would be automatically certified with a union instead of going through a contentious ballot vote. During the vote, employers will usually launch an anti-union campaign that sometimes uses heavy-handed tactics to pressure employees to vote against the union.

Second, employers would be required to proceed to arbitration if they don’t deliver a contract to their recently unionized workers 120 days after the union is certified. Employers have been known to stall contract negotiations for years.

Third, employers who violate existing labour laws should face stiffer fines and penalties. For example, sometimes companies will fire workers who are trying to form a union in their workplace. If the company is charged and taken to court, they are willing to pay the financial penalty because it’s minimal.

Even though unions did grow last year, this growth may not continue in 2014. If we made some small changes to our labour laws, there is a better chance this growth will continue for the next decade.


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