Labour unions are organizations that collectively bargain with employers for the protection of workers’ economic status and working conditions. In this article, the history of Canadian labour unions, their benefits and drawbacks, and the changes that need to be made to current labour union practices will be discussed.
History of Labour Unions in Canada:
The history behind labour unions in Canada began as early as the 1800s. One of the most prominent events in Canadian labour history was the organized strike by the Toronto Typographical Union for a shorter workday in 1872. Upwards of 10,000 supporters rallied despite the illegality of this activity, resulting in a response from Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. The outcome of this movement was the introduction of the Trade Union Act. This Act freed unions from charges of conspiracy for gathering to protest for increased wages and lower work hours. This movement also saw changes to picketing, which was no longer seen as an act of intimidation. Union supporters believe this strike was a pivotal moment in Canadian labour union history as it galvanized the labour movement.
Despite these advancements, the implementation of the federal Industrial Disputes Investigation Act of 1907, which required employee-employer disputes to be reported to a board of conciliation and mediation, was not favoured by the union movement. This act required that the board complete its investigations of the dispute prior to any strikes taking place, essentially delaying work stoppage in hopes that both employees and employers could “cool-off” during this time. These legal changes, the reduction of income due to war-time inflation, and the overall shortage of work at the time created tension that led to several strikes throughout 1918-19 that unfortunately did not lead to favourable outcomes for workers.
Despite this, the labour movement did not lose momentum, and several pivotal events took place that resulted in many gains for the worker. Developments included the founding of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) which unified several unions to promote a stronger voice for workers (1956). Additionally, the right to safety at work saw to the passing of the Industrial Safety Act which made up the foundation of the Canada Labour Code (1960s). In 1971, parental benefits were introduced through unemployment insurance and shortly after, unions negotiated an extension of paid parental leave that included salary top-ups by employers.
Approximately 30% of working Canadians are part of a labour union as of 2021. Labour unions continue to advocate for their workers by negotiating for better benefits that improve wages and benefits, in addition to improving workers’ access to affordable childcare and early childhood education for their families.
Benefits of Labour Unions:
It is clear that labour unions were pivotal in improving conditions for workers in Canada. As the needs of society changes, so do the benefits offered by labour unions. Ultimately, unions provide benefits to employees that are not always made available to nonunionized workers.
Safety and Security. Labour unions work to provide safety and security for workers by ensuring they are not victims of unlawful termination. Knowing they have job security; workers are more likely to air grievances about their employer. Labour unions regularly advocate for proper training for workers as a necessity to ensure a safe working environment. This was further apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic as labour unions advocated for the implementation of paid sick days and adequate access to PPE.
Addressing Discrimination. Unions continue to modify their policies to protect workers from discrimination in the workplace due to their race, religion, gender identity and expression, or sexuality. The CLC, the largest labour organization in Canada, acknowledged the role that Canada’s unions must play to promote equity in the workplace. Regularly releasing informational materials and campaigns to inform on several issues, such as the necessity for the federal government to address the systemic racism experienced by Black workers in Canada, emphasizes the awareness that some labour unions have in these times. By educating employers and union members on issues pertaining to worker equity, the CLC and other labour unions are hoping to improve the inclusivity of the workplace. In fact, it is the decline in unionization over the last several decades that is cited as one of the reasons why there is an expansion of the Black-White employee wage gap.
Drawbacks of Labour Unions:
General Drawbacks. Despite the many benefits that labour unions provide, several drawbacks must be considered. The most obvious drawback is the annual fee associated with being a member of a union. While some of these fees offset worker wage increases, they are also used to pay union leader salaries and the allocation of the money is not always agreed upon by all workers. Relatedly, there is a loss of autonomy in joining a union — if a unionized worker does not agree with the decisions made by the union, they are bound by these decisions. While many consider seniority a benefit of unions, this is a drawback for newer workers. Unfortunately, if employers must layoff unionized workers, seniority is considered and newly hired workers are often the first to be laid off, even if they are more productive than their more senior colleagues.
Employer Retaliation Against Unionization. Although not a direct drawback of labour unions, the act of unionizing has been a disadvantage for many workers. There are numerous examples in very recent months of employers threatening, intimidating, and harassing their employees to prevent them from exercising their rights to form a union. Most recently, a Starbucks store in Memphis terminated 35% of their employees, citing violations in “corporate security and safety policies” as the reason for termination. However, SB-Workers United, the union representing two Starbucks store locations, claim this is an example of a union-busting act, as 5 out of 7 of the terminated employees were union leaders in the Memphis store. In addition to firing employees, employers such as Walmart have a history of closing retail locations in retaliation for labour activism and attempts at unionization.
Detrimental Societal Impacts of Labour Unions. Some labour unions have come under fire for several years due to their decision to protect groups of workers that hold authoritative power over the general public. An example of such unions that have been publicly criticized are the police unions. Police officers often exert authoritative social and political power that is regularly met with minimal repercussions due to the existence of their protective labour unions. Numerous protests demanding police reform have been spurred as a result of the brutal murders of several people, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, by police officers in the United States. The protection of police officers by their labour unions is also found in many cities in Canada. The issues of police unions and the need for police reform is discussed in more depth in a supplemental blog post found on immpressmagazine.com.
Overall, labour unions have historically reformed labour laws for the benefit and protection of the worker. Labour unions must consider that the demands of modern workers continue to change as society progresses and should always remain open to the idea of reforming or changing policies so as to not fall behind.
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