A fine balance

Canadian unions confront globalization
December 19, 2002

Death through attrition and a barrage of anti-union legislation is the future for the Canadian labour movement unless it aggressively organizes thousands of new members every year. That's the conclusion from A Fine Balance: Canadian Unions Confront Globalization, a new Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives study on organized labour released today. The study finds that it will soon be sink or swim for Canada's unions.

Written by John Peters, a political scientist at York University, the study shows that over the past decade the effects of globalization have led to an increase in the non-unionized, part-time workforce. Employers in both the private and public sectors have gained more leverage to force unions to make concessions in wages and working conditions. Most governments have also amended labour laws to make it harder for unions to organize, and easier for employers to oppose unionization.

Unions have fought back by organizing some 50-60,000 new workers annually, successfully concentrating more of their efforts on private service industries, as well as on organizing women in low-wage manufacturing and in home and long-term care.

Nevertheless, because of the challenges posed by globalization and neo-liberalism, the consequences are that Canadian unions need to organize at least 120,000 workers each year--twice as many as they are now adding to their ranks-- or they will not maintain their present size and strength, which for the first time has fallen below 30% of the workforce.

"Canada's unions will have to adopt much more innovative and aggressive organizing strategies and structures if they are to avoid the fate of the labour movements in the United States, Britain, and Australia," says Peters, noting that unions in these countries have been decimated by neoliberal attacks on labour rights.

Unions in both Britain and the U.S. are belatedly starting to fight back, and some of the tactics they have developed could be put to good use by Canada's labour movement.

"But the time to implement these new methods and strategies in Canada is now, before the anti-labour assault grows stronger, not after the fact, when it's too late to stop massive membership losses and the breakdown of organized labour," says Peters.

The study describes the new organizing methods that have been successful in other industrial countries, and suggests how they could be adapted to the Canadian scene.