Written by Brad James, former Head of Organizing for United Steelworkers Canada. Views expressed are his own and not those of any current or former employer.
Unions and other progressive groups and some political parties are pushing for big changes to job-related legislation. But it’s not labour law, the laws that govern unionization and collective bargaining, that’s getting the attention. Instead, the focus is on revamping employment laws, such as the Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (ESA). There are energetic campaigns by groups to boost Ontario’s ESA with paid sick days (10 is the goal, plus more during pandemics). On the minimum wage front, now that the “Fight for $15” has been won with Doug Ford’s sudden change of heart, progressive groups are aiming for an even higher wage floor, maybe up to $20.
The Ontario Federation of Labour is promoting a “Gig Workers’ Bill of Rights” that would provide people who get their jobs from on-line platforms, such as Uber drivers and app-based food couriers, the same employment standards rights that most other employees have. Ontario’s NDP is sponsoring a private member’s billto boost the ESA with permanent employer-paid sick days for everyone and is supporting efforts to bring gig workers under the ESA’sprovisions.
What about Collective Bargaining Law Reform?
Yet there’s no high-profile campaign to revamp the Ontario Labour Relations Act (OLRA), no big push to make the choice to unionize more accessible, and no coordinated effort to provide union members with better footholds during collective bargaining. At the same time, central labour bodies and political parties put relatively little focus on promoting the mechanism that creates unionized working conditions in the first place: collective bargaining. This silence around labour law reform and collective bargaining co-exists with troubling indicators about organized labour’s strength. Ontario’s union coverage is the second lowest among all provinces (Figure 1). Ontario’s union coverage is only two thirds as large as Quebec’s. Only Alberta is lower.
Figure 1: Union Coverage by Province, 2020
And in Canada as a whole, there’s a downward trend in union coverage. In 1997, 33.7% of employees were covered by a union contract. By 2020, it was 31.3%. That may not seem like a dramatic slide, but it’s the sectoral mix that matters here. Public sector union coverage is higher than it was in 1997 (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Public Sector Union Coverage
But in the private sector, union coverage is way down, from 21.3% in 1997 to 15.8% in 2020 (Figure 3). To put that in starker terms, private sector union coverage is 26% smaller than it was 24 years ago. That’s a very big deal, especially given that three quarters of all jobs in Canada are in the private sector. If private sector union coverage keeps slipping, episodic campaigns to raise the floors in employment standards will not be enough to deliver broad gains for employees.
Figure 3: Private Section Union Coverage
In 2018, when Ontario’s newly elected Conservative government halted the defeated Liberals’ plan for a $15 minimum wage, it also cut into the OLRA, making it tougher for low-wage workers to join unions, limiting the ability of employees and unions to communicate, and pulling away bargaining power from unions during long strikes. But nobody is talking much about reversing those Doug Ford-led erosions or about labour law more generally.
Unifor President Jerry Dias and OPSEU President Warren “Smokey” Thomas appeared with Premier Doug Ford in early November when he announced his new admiration for a $15 minimum wage. The union leaders lauded the premier’s capacity for revision. But when they had the podium, they didn’t remind people that Mr. Ford has had no similar change of heart about his eroding of the OLRA. A few days later, OPSEU’s Mr. Thomas took part in an interview about labour relations in Ontario on TVO’s The Agenda but again made no mention of the Conservative labour law rollbacks. After Mr. Ford’s sudden shift on the $15 minimum wage, the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress slammed his reversal as too little and too late. But neither statement mentioned the Conservatives’ rollbacks to organizing and bargaining rights.
And while labour law reform is of course part of the OFL’s 2021 vision for the future, other issues occupy more space on Canadian labour’s front burner at both the provincial and federal levels. The OFL co-sponsors an ongoing on-line discussion called Decent Work for All to discuss work-related campaigning and lobbying plans. But OLRA improvements haven’t been directly on the agenda. Justice for Workers, the OFL’s partner in the event, lists dozens of work-related policy goals on its website. Just three are about labour law or the freedom to organize. The CLC’s recent “Action Week” asked union members to write MPs about a constellation of federal issues. Amongst the many proposals about reforms to federal legislation and policies, there was one thin reference to collective bargaining and no mention of enhancing the freedom to organize.
Who in the Labour Movement is Promoting the Benefits of Collective Bargaining?
If the labour movement’s federated bodies aren’t working overtime to build support for better labour laws, neither do they devote much time to simply promoting the benefits of collective bargaining. Check through the websites and social media feeds of the CLC or of the provincial labour federations. Scan the media releases. There’s not a lot of information about union achievements. There are only rare mentions of newly ratified collective agreements, health and safety victories, or new members choosing to join unions.
On the cusp of leaving office this summer, former CLC President Hassan Yussuff did an in-depth CBC interview, gliding through the discussion without once using the word “union,” without encouraging people to consider joining a union, and without giving any examples of unions achieving much of anything. It was reminiscent of his September 2020 Globe and Mail op-ed, which mentioned no tangible union accomplishments since about 1919 and included no suggestion that today’s labour laws could do with any improving.
Over the last two years in Ontario alone, union bargaining committees settled more than 850 collective agreements that guarantee wages and working conditions for more than 686,000 employees. There are good stories in that thick stack of new agreements. Here are just two. In November, the United Steelworkers delivered a breakthrough with two employer-paid sick days for more than 3,500 “casual” employees working for University of Toronto (plus dental benefit improvements and better job security). Last spring, Unifor won one of richer collective agreements negotiated in Ontario in 2021 for mining employees in Goderich (an average 3.1% wage gain every year for 5 years, a $3,000 signing bonus for each employee, plus benefit increases).
These unions generated some publicity about the settlements, but federal and provincial labour federations rarely amplify this kind of news. On top of the many other stories like these that are waiting to be told, there’s also plenty of empirical research showing that unions have positive impact, and that they especially help people in lower-paid jobs do better than they otherwise would without a union. For example, new research about workers’ health risks on the job in Canada during the pandemic shows that collective bargaining produces a hefty hazard pay premium (10.3% on average) for union members over their non-union counterparts. And that effect is even stronger for the bottom quarter of income earners, where union members have a 17.6% pay advantage over non-union workers facing the same health risks.
If the labour movement could spend more time telling these good stories, so could Ontario’s opposition parties. While Ontario’s NDP and Liberals issue plenty of statements about increasing the minimum wage and about legislating paid sick days (while still frequently paying tribute to small business), neither gives prominence to labour law issues or to union successes at the bargaining table.
The silence of Steven Del Duca and the Liberals is notable given all the effort the party invested in its labour law reforms during Kathleen Wynne’s final months as premier. NDP leader Andrea Horwath did mention labour law reform in her speechto the OFL’s recent virtual convention. But outside the ‘halls of labour’, the topic is rarely part of the NDP’s public commentary. Among the NDP’s news releases and Andrea Horwath’s tweets this year, there are none about changing labour law to make it easier to organize a union or to enhance union members’ bargaining leverage.
And given the current focus on low-wage workers, recall that back in 2017 the then Liberal government declined to take up a recommendation from its own advisors to establish a new system of broader-based collective bargaining to help address the needs of generally lower-wage employees in the franchise sector. Nor did the NDP make that proposal a priority. Labour law reform doesn’t get much play at the federal level either. During the 2021 federal election campaign, neither the NDP nor the Liberals offered a single proposal around union organizing in their platforms.
Contrast this with this situation in the United States. While it may not become law, the PRO Act, a bill that would make the National Labor Relations Actmore employee- and union-friendly, has President Joe Biden and most of the Democratic Party loudly behind it. The Biden White House’s “Build Back Better” infrastructure package would increase fines on employers that act illegally when employees try to form unions. President Biden’s new plan to promote electric vehicles includes a consumer subsidy for cars built in unionized factories. Biden also weighed in with a pro-union message during this year’s organizing drive at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama, and with more recent criticism of Kellogg’s for threatening to permanently replace strikers. Canadian politicians, in government or in opposition, rarely support unions so assertively, at least not in Biden’s very public manner.
And union rights are a part of the news and opinion mix in the US. John Oliver and his HBO show Last Week Tonight devoted the entire November 14 episode to union rights. In a recent essay, Gabriel Winant describes the new US interest in unions this way: “The labour movement commands attention once again from a broad liberal public that shunned it for decades.” So, perhaps there’s an opportunity here for Canada’s labour movement and its allies. There is plenty that they can do to spark a campaign about labour law reform. And if that’s linked to more consistent promotion of the gains that unions can achieve in collective bargaining, it’s plausible to think there’s a substantial audience that would listen.
Brad James, “Why So Quiet About Unions and Collective Bargaining?” Law of Work Blog (December 16, 2021): https://lawofwork.ca/james_whysoquiet/