United we stand: Inside the new union boom

Organized labour movements have been on the rise lately. Several high-profile cases have indicated that many employees want their workplaces to unionize. Starbucks stores across the United States chose to unionize throughout 2022, leading to more than 250 locations unionizing that year. Around the same time, Amazon workers at a New York warehouse made history by forming the company’s first union in the U.S. Most recently, Hollywood writers and actors have begun to strike as part of the American actors’ union Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) ongoing labour dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

Similar attempts to unionize have been occurring across Canada. Healthcare workers, education employees, carpenters and Canadian National Railway workers are just a few of the industries trying to unionize. There have also been reports of strikes and labour disruptions as unions and employers battle it out during bargaining attempts, and these strikes are predicted to continue in the upcoming months.

The number of unions across North America has been decreasing for decades, and despite reports of a union boom, union membership has continued to decline. An article published by NPR earlier this year reports that roughly one in 10 American workers belong to a union, a rate that has dropped since its peak in the 1950s when one in three belonged to a union.

Despite the overall low union participation, there is a growing desire among certain workers to unionize. Even though union participation fell in the U S across 2022, unionized workers increased by 200,000. Why are workers trying to unionize, and what are they trying to achieve?

Rising inflation, higher pay

Although inflation in Canada fell to 2.8 per cent in June 2023, it has risen by 15.36 per cent since 2020. Groceries, in particular,  have seen a year-over-year increase of 8.3 per cent in prices and a two-year change of 17.9 per cent. Additionally, basic living expenses have been rising.

Adam Murray, a Toronto-based cook and labour activist, has felt this dramatic jump.

“I’m at a point where I think twice about buying butter now. It’s ridiculous,” he said.

Murray aspires to create a union in his restaurant and has ambitions to spread organized labour to other kitchen workers. One of the primary motivators for these efforts is to keep up with the rising cost of living. Statistics Canada reported that wages increased an average of 3.1 per cent in 2022 while official inflation rates rose by 5.1 per cent. Canadians have especially felt the rising costs of critical and essential needs, such as housing, food and gasoline.

Murray said this has led to a much lower standard of living for him and his coworkers. A report by TD Economics explains that the standard of living in Canada is among the lowest among wealthy nations and is not expected to fully regain its former position until 2060. Although the report blames poor nationwide business productivity and innovation for this change, the lower standard of living associated with higher basic living expenses is felt by many Canadians.

Murray said he believes that workers wanting higher pay is not related to greed; they just want to keep up with the higher cost of living. A 2022 report from the U.S. House and Senate committees showed unionized workers earn 10.2 per cent higher wages than non-unionized workers in the same roles. As living expenses continue to rise, workers need increased pay to keep up with these demands, and one way to achieve this is through unionizing.

Illegal labour practices

Murray explained that illegal practices are commonplace in restaurants, and in his experience, employees are expected to work without breaks during shifts as long as 12 hours. This violates Ontario’s labour laws, which entitles workers to a 30-minute break within the first five hours of a shift.

In addition to a lack of breaks, Murray said the restaurant industry commonly expects kitchen workers to work shifts longer than 12 hours without earning overtime pay. This also breaks Ontario labour laws, entitling workers to overtime pay after an eight-hour shift.

Unions can help protect workers against unfair and illegal employment practices, including safeguarding workers from wage theft and wage disparity while promoting the enforcement of health and safety regulations.

Who benefits from unions?   

Unions are not without vocal opposition. Anti-union advocates argue unions actively harm businesses by decreasing companies’ profits, which could lead to layoffs, poor innovation or failure.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, unions are better for workers, communities and the government. Over 3,700 employees of the grocery retailer Metro went on strike in July after their long-standing union failed to reach an agreement with company leaders over core concerns, including pay, health and sick leave benefits and stable work hours. This agreement would aim to improve employee satisfaction while decreasing the ongoing staffing crisis in the retail sector and increasing local communities’ access to groceries.

Murray said he believes that most companies have extra money to cover the costs of higher wages, benefits and legal protections associated with joining a union. However, this may not be true in all cases. Small businesses, which comprise a majority of employer businesses in Canada, can be disadvantaged since they may be unable to cover the extra costs of being unionized. Despite these concerns, it’s important to remember that it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against employees wishing to unionize.

Instead of working against employees, an employer can benefit from a union as well, as it offers a chance to engage in meaningful, ongoing dialogue to make employment practices more standardized and predictable. Contrary to fears, it is actually in the union’s best interest to ensure the ongoing survival of their employer.

For Murray and other pro-union workers, a company’s profits are not more important than employees being able to afford their basic living expenses. It’s uncertain whether or not the new union movement will stick around, but for now, unions and unionized workers are experiencing a resurgence in support and interest. Let’s hope the growing interest benefits workers, employers and society, and we can return to buying butter without feeling guilty.

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