This Labour Day, unions have new optimism
Unions are marching with fresh optimism this Labour Day with a sympathetic Liberal government in Ottawa and Ontario introducing workplace reforms
Challenges remain, no doubt, with a dwindling number of blue collar jobs and unprecedented growth in “precarious” work, but Canadian unions are set to march with renewed pride this Labour Day weekend.
There’s a broad expectation of sunny days ahead with the ousting of former primer minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. And Ontario has embarked on a sweeping review of its employment and labour laws with an eye toward bringing both in line with 2st-century needs.
So expect a spring their step, and perhaps a tad more swagger, as union leaders take to the streets on Monday leading their flag-bearing, drum-beating rank-and-file in fresh choruses of “Solidarity Forever.” History’s tide, at least for now, appears to be flowing in their direction.
“There’s a sense of optimism in the movement these days, as opposed to the last 10 years under Harper,” Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff said in an interview this week. Indeed, the election of a Liberal government last fall has already produced tangible benefits for working people.
At the same time, in Canada’s largest province, a simultaneous review of employment standards and labour relations rules presents “a fundamental opportunity to right some wrongs,” says Yussuff. “If we can get this right in Ontario I’m certain we can do the same thing at the federal level.”
It’s worth bearing in mind that these are early days in the federal Liberal mandate. Politicians throughout history have been known to disappoint their supporters. But there’s good cause for new optimism in the labour movement.
For a start, union membership appears to have stabilized after years of gradual decline. Canada’s percentage of union dues-paying workers ticked upward last year, to 31.8 per cent of all employees, according to federal labour statistics. That’s an increase of 0.3 percentage points, with more than 4.8 million workers paying to support their union.
In addition to this success, there’s a palpable change of attitude at the federal level — going from Harper’s outright hostility to a more balanced approach toward labour taken by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. One result of this switch was the reaching of a tentative agreement between Canada Post and its largest union just this week, Yussuff said.
After more than nine months of sometimes bitter bargaining, including threats of a lock-out and job action, management and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers signed a two-year tentative deal on Tuesday. If ratified by the country’s 50,000 postal workers, the agreement will head off a disruptive interruption in mail delivery.
Many businesses, including the online commerce giant eBay, had urged Trudeau to follow Harper’s example by introducing back-to-work legislation in the event of a postal strike. But Trudeau signaled earlier this summer that he would not consider such a step.
Instead, his government put renewed emphasis on collective bargaining by appointing a special mediator to help the two sides find common ground. It turned out to be the right way forward.
“Sometimes a party needs some guidance and some assistance, not a big stick to beat people over the head and legislate them back to work,” Yussuff said. “This new government came in and started from the basic principle that it was going to make collective bargaining work.”
This approach serves everyone well, not just unions. Also of broad benefit was an agreement this spring by Ottawa and the provinces to expand the Canada Pension Plan — a move especially important given a troubling erosion of workplace pension programs. Yussuff calls this “a major victory for working people.”
Labour expects more gains after Ontario finishes its massive Changing Workplaces Review. Final recommendations are expected by the end of this year, but a 312-page interim report issued in July has already highlighted major and extensive problems in need of correction.
Authors of the analysis found that “there are too many people in too many workplaces who do not receive their basic rights.” Lax enforcement of existing rules is a pressing problem. And employee well-being is being eroded as an increasing number of people find temporary and part-time work, without job security or traditional benefits.
In light of very real gaps evident in worker protections, labour quite rightly expects Ontario’s government to introduce significant reforms. “We’re optimistic they will reach the right balance,” says Yussuff.
Highly desirable changes that would benefit all working people, not just union members, include:
A new labour code provision establishing a minimum level of paid sick leave for all employees. Right now, most people doing precarious work are simply left to fend for themselves.
Expansion of the legal definition of an “employee” so that it covers those currently deemed “independent contractors” — a designation used to deprive them of benefits enjoyed by a company’s permanent, full-time staff.
Setting a limit on the length of time an employer can use a “temporary” worker before giving that person full-time job.
If the promise of lasting reform inherent in Ontario’s review of its employment and labour laws comes to fruition, and the Trudeau government continues its co-operative ways, next year’s Labour Day parade may be even more upbeat than this one. Not bad for a movement that has so frequently been written off as an obsolete relic.