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Labour unions are making headlines. Here’s why.

Written by:
Staff Writer

Some of the biggest labour unions are going on strike.

  • Over 100,000 passenger flight plans were disrupted when 680 WestJet mechanics represented by the AMFA went on strike.
  • Billions of dollars worth of goods were stuck in port when 7400 International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU) members went on strike in BC.
  • 30 federal government departments in the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) went on strike affecting, among other things, Service Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency.

Statistics Canada reports that there were over 2.2 million person-days not worked in 2023 and the fight is not over. There have been many strikes in 2024 already and we’re in the middle of an LCBO strike in Ontario and a possible healthcare worker strike in Nova Scotia.

It begs the question, why are all these strikes happening?

The cause

The big two causes: wages and the job market.

It’s no secret that inflation has hit bank accounts hard. For example, in an interview, the president of the Athabasca University Faculty Association, Bob Barnetson that his union members, on average, have lost 20% of their purchasing power in the last 10 years.

While the job market has somewhat stabilized now, companies were struggling to find employees. Some industries had reported vacancy rates as high as 50% more than ever before.

The combination of these two elements gave labour unions a lot of power at the bargaining table. They’re using this opportunity to negotiate to regain purchasing power and to put measures in place to elevate their work life.

How it all began

The history of unions in Canada dates back to the late 19th century when workers began organizing to fight for better wages, working conditions, and job security. The rise of industrialization saw an increase in labour disputes, leading to the formation of powerful unions. These organizations have been instrumental in advocating for workers’ rights and influencing labour laws. Quite often their impact ripples outside of the unions themselves into the general workforce.

Labour union’s role in the economy

Labour unions hold real influence in our evolving economy.

Employer advantages

Unions contributed significantly to the stabilization of the Canadian workforce. Unionized workplaces, due to their job security and satisfaction, have a lower turnover rate. This lower turnover leads to lower costs for hiring and training employees while boosting productivity.

Unions frequently work with management to boost workplace efficiency. Improved working conditions and happier employees can result in higher productivity. In fact, a study published in the HR Reporter discovered that happier employees have 31 percent higher productivity.

Collective bargaining within unions contributes to efficiency in business policy. It is much easier for businesses to negotiate with unions than with individual employees, benefiting both workers and employers by saving money and time. Examples include streamlined benefits and consistent wage structures.

Employee advantages

Union jobs are highly valued because they provide improved working conditions, negotiated pay raises, and enhanced benefit packages. With a union job, you have legal protection against unfair discipline or firing. Union workers also enjoy better pensions, protection from management harassment, and seniority rights for scheduling, vacation, and job security.

According to the Canadian Union of Public Employees, workers are paid 23 percent more on average than non-unionized workers.

Disadvantages

Ironically, many of the disadvantages of unions are the same for both employers and employees. In the event of a strike, there’s a loss of revenue/income on both sides. There’s greater hierarchical red tape. For example, employers have less control over human resources policies. Employees, lose any individual negotiating power they have. There are costs associated with unions for both sides. Employees pay union dues. Employers pay higher wages and legal costs.

Recently, the cost of a strike just increased for employers. New legislation was put in place prohibiting employers from using replacement workers during a strike or lockout. The Government of Canada hopes these new regulations will encourage more agreements to be put in place before a strike occurs.

Labour union influences on the public at large

Unions have had both a positive and negative impact on workers and businesses, they also impact the Canadian economy as a whole.

Unions have a significant impact on important issues.

The SAG-AFTRA strike in the US is a great example. One of the main points of contention was Artificial Intelligence. Studios wanted to have the right to use an actor’s talent in perpetuity. Meaning the actor would be paid to perform once and the studios would then have the right to reuse it forevermore using AI.

ACTRA’s, the equivalent union here in Canada, contract expires at the end of 2024. It will be interesting to see if SAG-AFTRA’s agreement affects how negotiations play out. Going even further, how their negotiation will affect the use of AI in general.

Inevitably, some strikes cause disruption to the public.

“We believe this outcome would not have been possible without the strike, but we do regret the disruption and inconvenience it has caused the travelling public over the Canada Day holiday period,” an AMFA representative said to CBC News.

Sometimes, these disruptions cost the public time and money. Often it’s these very disruptions, and not wanting to effect the public too long, that bring the two parties back to the bargaining table to work out a resolution.

Are these influences worth it? In the end, it comes down to an individual’s opinion and how history unfolds.

Conclusion

Labour unions significantly shape the economic landscape by influencing wages, benefits, productivity, and corporate profitability. They change with social and economic shifts, aiming for fair results for workers in different fields. As we face future challenges and opportunities from globalization and technology, it’s key to understand how unions, strikes, and the economy interact to create smart policies for sustainable growth and prosperity across the country.

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