It is well established that unionized workers earn better wages and better benefits than their non-union counterparts. Unionized workers also experienced much higher levels of job security during the COVID-19 pandemic. But if the benefits of union membership are so obvious, why are less than one in three workers in Canada unionized?
While there is no consensus about what factors may influence support for unionisation, dissatisfaction with working conditions and a desire for respect and voice at work are often cited as major reasons that workers Why look for unions?
Wanting a union and securing a union, however, are two very different things. That’s because unionization has permanent barriers that make it incredibly difficult for workers to turn their initial support for the idea of union into reality.
barriers to unionization
Labor laws play a fundamental role in helping or hindering unionisation. For example, independent contractors and the self-employed are legally excluded from union membership in Canada and agricultural and domestic workers in many provinces. For workers who can legally unionize, provincial governments – under pressure from the business community – have generally made it more difficult to exercise that right in recent decades.
Employers with the intention of opposing unionization often take advantage of loopholes in labor law to build opposition to unions within their own workforce. While many union avoidance strategies are illegal, employers are often less afraid of punishment for engaging in “union-busting” activities than of the consequences of unionization.
Sangh Parihar is a multi-million dollar business. Lawyers and consultants devise strategies for managers to maintain union-free workplaces. These strategies may include active intimidation and surveillance of union supporters, exploiting divisions within the workforce to incite union opposition, or spreading misinformation about the implications of unionisation.
These common union avoidance strategies are difficult to overcome, especially given the power imbalance between employers and workers.
union replacement, repression
Effective anti-union campaigns often rely on a combination of union replacement and union repression.
Union replacement techniques are carrots designed to increase worker loyalty to the employer, thus making employees less likely to identify with the union. Some non-federal companies operating in highly unionized areas try to keep wages and working conditions in line with unionized workers in an effort to prevent their own workforce from being considered a union.
If union replacement represents the carrot, then the union suppression technique is the stick. Union repression seeks to sow the seeds of anti-union suspicion in the minds of workers and play with the fear that unionization may result in job losses. Repression techniques often involve targeting pro-union employees for discipline and dismissal.
In recent years, retail giants Target and Home Depot had their anti-union videos leaked on social media, showing just how much money and effort employers are willing to put into such initiatives.
Walmart, meanwhile, uses the “Union Probability Index” to monitor employee behavior and morale. If a store’s index becomes high enough, the head office sends a team to the store to ensure it remains union-free. And, as we said in Ontario, Jonquier, Ky. And as seen in the cases of Walmart in Foodora, some companies will close outlets or operations rather than tolerate a union.
Read more: Despite Foodora decision, app-based activists face tough union battle
lack of unions
Despite these aggressive union avoidance tactics, opinion polls indicate that if given the option, many non-union workers will choose to unionize.
However, many of these workers, especially those concentrated in relatively small workplaces in the private sector, do not find a ready union to organize them. Organizing smaller workplaces is usually cost-prohibitive for unions and rarely results in extensive bargaining power for workers in a particular sector.
Union supply problems explain why we are more likely to see unions in large workplaces with more than 500 employees than in smaller workplaces with fewer than 20 employees.
Union supply constraints, labor relations power dynamics and employers’ union avoidance strategies all work together to prevent workers from exercising their right to unionize.
This result is not accidental. It is no coincidence that the rate of unionization has fallen with the passage of anti-union labor law reforms in most provinces. Those reforms have made it easier for workers to exercise their legal right to unionize and for employers to intervene in union-organizing campaigns.
what is next?
Governments can certainly change labor laws to facilitate unionization and crack down on employers engaging in union avoidance activities.
Many of the proposals contained in the former Ontario Liberal government’s now defunct Changing Workplace Review could provide a road map for providing workers with the tools needed to exercise their rights more meaningfully, including a framework for broad-based bargaining which will help workers in small workplaces.
Given the increasing levels of social and economic inequality in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for facilitating unionization is more urgent than ever.