Unions see alternative amid pandemic uncertainty

Workers leave the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ont. on the final day of production on Wednesday, December 18, 2019. One of the biggest signs that the labour movement has its wind at its back is the revitalization of General Motors’ plant in Oshawa, Ont. during negotiations with Unifor.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Staff go away the Common Motors plant in Oshawa, Ont. on the ultimate day of manufacturing on Wednesday, December 18, 2019. One of many largest indicators that the labour motion has its wind at its again is the revitalization of Common Motors’ plant in Oshawa, Ont. throughout negotiations with Unifor.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim


Whereas “unprecedented” has been the go-to time period to explain the ripple results of the COVID-19 pandemic, the wave of labour upheaval at present shifting throughout the nation is the most recent flip in a well-known cycle.

Instances of disaster have at all times been linked to labour unrest, says Dimitry Anastakis, who teaches enterprise historical past on the College of Toronto’s division of historical past and Rotman College of Administration. Labour exercise adopted each the First and Second World Wars in addition to the Nice Melancholy. Anastakis factors out the biggest strike in Canadian historical past — the Winnipeg Common Strike of 1919 — got here amid an influenza pandemic.

“There’s one thing actual occurring right here,” he says.


Because the pandemic has dragged on, staff from corporations as various as Indigo Books and Music, the Nationwide Put up, Vancouver’s Turning Level Brewing and Matchstick Espresso, and Ottawa’s Superette Wellington hashish dispensary have joined unions this 12 months.

Union leaders say these staff are a part of a brand new era of labour activists, utilizing inventive strategies to get their message out to each administration and most people towards the backdrop of COVID-19’s financial upheaval.

Derek Johnstone, particular assistant to the nationwide president at United Meals and Industrial Staff Canada, says the union has had extra new members than typical this 12 months.


“I feel that COVID has had a very highly effective affect on how service sector staff — how retail staff, how meals manufacturing staff — see themselves,” Johnstone says. “It is made it abundantly clear not solely to themselves, however to the broader Canadian public, and hopefully, to politicians and huge employers, that these jobs are vital.”

Dollarama and Loblaw workers protested alongside union leaders, and unionized staff spoke out because the COVID-19 pandemic threatened job safety for the airline and lodge industries, metal tradespeople and longshore staff.

UFCW initially wasn’t positive how limitations on gatherings would change its organizing efforts, however staff at Indigo had been capable of run an “inspiring” marketing campaign by means of social media, Johnstone says.


“What’s actually superb is that sense of group that we usually see in an in-person assembly was really manifesting itself on social media,” says Johnstone. “A key a part of that marketing campaign was of us being vocal on Fb, having and planning digital conferences.”

One of many labour motion’s triumphs of 2020 was the revitalization of Common Motors’ plant in Oshawa, Ont., throughout negotiations with Unifor.

Unifor president Jerry Dias notes that nobody may have predicted the demand for vehicles would spike due to a worldwide pandemic, pushing GM to look as soon as once more to Oshawa.


“COVID has pressured everybody to rethink the economic system and compelled everybody to prioritize … so, for the primary time, we actually noticed a meshing of the minds. Governments have seemingly put the politics apart,” says Dias.

Dias says he sees the unionization fee rising in Canada, as Unifor has observed renewed curiosity from staff at different automakers.

“No person anticipated that in a pandemic we’ll cut price $5 billion price of investments, and one of many strongest financial packages for staff that we have seen in all probability in 15 years,” says Dias.


“So now you’d have non-union staff that work for Honda, Toyota and within the auto elements sectors say, ‘Hey … what about me?'”

Tom Galivan, secretary-treasurer of Service Workers Worldwide Union Native 2, says his union additionally noticed some breakthroughs this 12 months. It gained staff within the retail trade, which has traditionally been troublesome to arrange attributable to excessive turnover, and at craft breweries, an trade that has modified quickly from the times when a number of huge, unionized breweries dominated.

However Galivan says at his union, membership continues to be down this 12 months, because the uneasy transition by regulators to digital techniques slowed down the method of voting to unionize.


“Most staff in Canada fall below the jurisdiction of provincial labour relations laws. It was very uneven province to province, how these labour boards responded,” says Galivan.

“Within the case of Nova Scotia, for example, there was a time frame through which the board there simply did not course of functions. So, staff did not have a pathway to unionize.”

Galivan says he expects staff and employers to be on a “collision course” set off by the pandemic — a pressure he expects will outline the following couple of years within the labour motion.


“There may be a whole lot of pent-up frustration in various sectors the place front-line staff have borne the brunt of the heavy lifting by means of the general public well being disaster. And that hasn’t been mirrored in elevated ranges of compensation,” says Galivan.

“In actual fact, what we’re seeing is, as a result of the economic system goes by means of so many challenges … they’re now encountering employers which are searching for austerity.”

Anastakis notes that main challenges could lie forward for labour organizers to maintain the momentum from COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine shifts the temper in workplaces, significantly with the rise of precarious “gig economic system” work.


Daria Ivanochko, managing director of organizing and regional companies on the Canadian Union of Public Workers, says she has not seen main membership development in her union this 12 months. However she says requests from staff have taken on a extra pressing tone.

“I feel the pandemic has actually created a want for a collective response in these unsure occasions, and at its very core, that is what commerce unions are about,” says Ivanochko. “I see that as a giant alternative.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first revealed Dec. 23, 2020.