A look at unions in the 21st Century

‘We’re not just there to rile up things for no reason’

COVID-19 and the rise of the gig economy have shaped the future of labour organization.

Unionization in Canada isn’t uncommon, with the number of workers represented by a union holding steady at about 30 per cent for the last decade. Most of this is in the public sector.

“Public administration, healthcare, education, are all about 70 per cent unionized, and that's been very steady for quite some time,” Robert Hickey, associate professor and Undergraduate Chair of Employment Relations, said in an interview with The Journal.

Unionization heavily favors public sectors like healthcare, education, and public administration. Retail and food services are among the least common sectors to see widespread unionization.

In the 2020s, we’re once again having conversations about worker’s rights and unionization. However, while methods like striking and bargaining worked well in the 20th century, the global economy has shifted, making it harder for workers to advocate for themselves. 

“The competitive nature of the labor market has gone global, which is a real challenge for unions” Hickey said.

Many industries can now outsource labour. This means if local workers challenge their employers, employers may relocate to another country where there is much cheaper labour.

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COVID-19 has given people the time and perspective to consider their working conditions. It’s a contributing factor to the “great resignation”—with thousands of people quitting their jobs since the onset of the pandemic. While the effects have not been seen as heavily in Canada as in the U.S., many are re-thinking their relationship with labour.

“There’s been speculation around the so called ‘great resignation,’” Hickey said. “The idea is people realizing, […] ‘Low wage, poor conditions, is this really what I want to spend my time doing?’”

In late 2021, a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York made international news for becoming the first of over 10,000 U.S. locations to unionize. The movement spread quickly across the nation, with a location in Mesa, Arizona following in February. Over 65 Starbucks locations across 20 states are expected to hold unionization elections soon.

In August 2020, a Starbucks in Victoria, BC became the first Canadian location to be represented by a union since the mid-2000s.

This return to unionization is not limited to the Seattle-based coffee chain.

Employees at Amazon have been pressuring to form unions for years. Campaigns for unionization have also begun at multiple Indigo Bookstores across the country.

According to Hickey, it’s difficult to say if unionization rates are rising just yet, but this push for unionization is clearly holding the public’s attention.

“We're seeing it kind of spread across the states,” Hickey said. “There have been unionization efforts at Starbucks in Canada before. And this newest wave, I think, is sparking additional interest.”

Astrid Hobill is president of labour union PSAC 901, which represents Queen’s graduate students. Recently, PSAC has been bargaining with Queen’s for improvements in mental health support. They reached a tentative agreement in late February.

“People are finally looking at [labour disputes] and saying, ‘It’s not the unions that are causing the problems here,’” Hobill said in an interview with The Journal.

“In the 80s and 90s, corporations did a pretty good job of demonizing unions.”

Just because unionization rates hover at about 30 per cent in Canada it doesn’t mean only 30 per cent of Canadians are pro-union.

“There has always been a much higher interest or desire for unionization than what the actual unionization rate is,” Hickey said.

In both Canada and the U.S., employees are required to have majority support to form a union. Even in sectors with low rates of unionization, there’s a minority of people who would like to unionize but are unable to.

“You may work at a workplace that has, you know, 40 per cent support for unionization, but you'll never get a union because under North American labor law they require majority status,” Hickey explained.

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The labour market has changed drastically since the days of 20th-century general strikes. Workers are no longer earning income solely through traditional nine-to-five jobs.

“Being part of a union can really help protect workers, especially now as we see more and more of the gig economy,” Hobill said.

“Gig employment” refers to a kind of work paid on a project-to-project basis in place of a salary or hourly wage. Gig work spans across countless industries and can involve anything from delivering food to pet sitting. 

The percentage of individuals involved in gig employment has gone up, representing 8.2 per cent of total employment in 2016 compared to 5.5 per cent in 2005. Gig-based work has become more popular with the rise of apps like Uber, DoorDash, and Skip The Dishes.

When working for a company like Uber, workers are considered independent contractors. This means companies are not required to meet labour standards like paying the minimum wage. Critics say companies are exploiting workers, while companies argue such benefits are exchanged for the flexibility of gig work.

“Independent contractors don't have the right to unionize. In fact, it's kind of the opposite.” Hickey said. “They're considered independent businesses. So, if they collude, they'll be violating antitrust regulations.”

Uber has been taken to court multiple times by workers for the lack of protection provided to them.

As of January 2021, Uber has signed an agreement with labour union UFCW Canada, giving Canadian drivers and couriers the opportunity for representation. While this doesn’t entail unionization, it gives employees the ability to be represented by UFCW Canada free of charge.

“It's interesting to see if the union can engage workers in these kind of non-traditional ways, non-traditional arrangements, and whether or not the union is able to develop a sustainable strategy to represent Uber drivers,” Hickey noted.

“That remains to be seen, but it's an interesting development.”

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Increased public interest in unions isn’t only about working conditions. Many workers are finding it difficult to live off low wages in an increasingly expensive world. 

“There is a lot of profit being made off of their labour, and most of the profit is not going back to the workers but is ending up with mostly large companies,” Hobill said.

In the last 40 years, the share of income held by labourers hasn’t increased. This is particularly frustrating considering the rising costs of living in Canada. Inflation is higher than it’s been in the last 30 years, reaching a rate of 4.8 per cent.

“It looks very different in different sectors, but I think that most sectors can benefit from unionization,” Hobill remarked.

Workers in different sectors are fighting for different things. Starbucks employees fighting for higher wages and better staffing levels, Uber workers fighting for employee benefits, and Queen’s grad students fighting for mental health benefits—these are just three of many labour stories.

All three of these examples tell a larger story of workers coming together to bargain for better conditions.

“We’re not just there to rile up things for no reason, unions are in place to protect workers from exploitation,” Hobill said.

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