According to the union organizers who won a union certification vote at the H&M clothing store at Square One in Mississauga last week, the employer was unusually well-behaved during the campaign. No terminations, no threat to close the store and fire everyone if the workers voted for a union. The employees voted 25-13 in favour of having the UFCW union represent them in collective bargaining. H&M is a Swedish retailer, from a country where almost everyone is in a union, so unlike North American employers, the thought of union does not provoke panicked hysteria.
Now the hard part begins. The UFCW needs to bargain a collective agreement that a majority of the employees will accept in a ratification vote. In order to gain some leverage in that bargaining, the employees may be asked whether they are prepared to strike. If a strike threat could be organized in time for the Christmas shopping season, that could actually apply some pressure on H&M. But it is far from clear that the UFCW will be able to bargain a strong enough first agreement to maintain employee support over the long run. Best of luck to them.
In sharp contrast, there is Walmart. Walmart fights tooth and nail against employee attempts to unionize, including breaking the law when necessary. Recall in Windsor during the late 1990s when Walmart was found to have violated the Labour Relations Act in a number of ways, including threatening to end certain employee benefits and by leading employees to believe that if they voted to unionize, the employer would close the store and fire everyone.
When despite all odds, Walmart employees do choose to unionize, Walmart does everything in its power to prevent the union from bargaining a decent collective agreement. This strategy is almost always successful. Why is that?
Because our labour law model is not designed to empower retail workers to bargain decent collective agreements.
Think about why unions did so well in car plants, steel mills, and mines. What do those workplaces have in common?
They are all giant workplaces, with hundreds of workers who report to the same physical location. The union can organize all employees of Ford in Oakville and Stelco in Hamilton. If they go on strike, the entire workplace would usually shut down. That’s a blow to the employers, and therefore, they have a strong incentive to bargain seriously with the union to avoid a work stoppage.
Now look at Walmart, Starbucks, McDonalds, Scotiabank. What’s different about those workplaces?
The answer is that they are all huge corporations, but they operate through hundreds of small workplaces dispersed across huge geographic areas. Walmart has every reason to ensure that the unionized store employees do not win improvements above the nonunion stores. If the union were able to do that, then other stores might unionize too. The only tool the unionized workers have to pressure Walmart to give them improved working conditions is a threat to strike.
Is that a real threat? Do you think Walmart is shaking in its boots at the prospect of one of 500 stores going strike? Absolutely not. Under our legal model, it is not unlawful for Walmart to tell the union that it is not prepared to agree to the union’s bargaining demand to win improvements above what the nonunion stores receive. The employees can then strike to try and change Walmart’s mind, but that strike is unlikely to be very successful.
History shows that most of the time, unions that manage to get certified for retail operations are either unable to bargain a first collective agreement, or do so, only to be decertified later on because the agreement bargained is weak. This is a main reason why Walmart employees usually decertify soon after they are unionized. See this story about a Walmart store in Quebec being decertified this week. There are exceptions–the grocery industry is a prime example, where workers are well represented. But our model was never designed to allow unions to flourish in the retail and service sector. It was designed to encourage unionization in large, industrial workplaces, so workers there could earn ‘family’ wages sufficient to buy cars, houses, clothing. Retail workers were considered secondary, less important.
Studies show us that retail and financial sector workers have among the highest support for unions, yet are least likely of all workers to be unionized. For example, Meltz & Lipset (two of the most respected industrial relations scholars in North America) found that while the retail sector is only 11.6 percent unionized, over 31% of nonunion workers would vote for a union if asked. The financial sector unionization rate is only 3.5%, but over 33 % of the nonunion workers would vote for a union if only they were given that opportunity. That is a huge gap between demand for unionization and actual unionization.
Given that those large industrial workplaces are becoming far less prominent players in the Canadian economy, is it time for our labour laws model to change in order to faciliate more collective bargaining in the low-wage retail and service sector?
If so, can you think of ways that law could empower retail workers to bargain decent first collective agreements?
Hint: The NDP under Bob Rae in the early 1990s in Ontario had some ideas that could have actually achieved this. Do you know what the NDP did?