There has been an increase in strike activity and a perceptible uptick in unionization organizing efforts across industry sectors in Canada. Will the pattern be short-lived or is it part of longer-term labour growth? Time will tell, however, there is little doubt that the growing economic uncertainty, the COVID-19 pandemic, exposure to global unionization movements and the adaptability of unions to find new methods and markets are all contributors to the union activity we are currently observing here in Canada.
(a) Growing Economic Uncertainty and the COVID-19 Pandemic
In an aggressive bid to temper ever-increasing inflation, the Bank of Canada has hiked interest rates to their highest level since 1998. Add to that the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, European conflict and supply chain issues, and we have a recipe for economic uncertainty, in which workers naturally place greater focus on compensation and job security. With wages generally lagging behind inflation, workers search for stability and become more receptive to union messaging that promises better wages, improved working conditions, no layoffs, and a voice at the table.
(b) Exposure to Global Unionization Efforts
Today, union organizing plays out on popular social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok. These platforms allow union organizers to target their messages not only to particular workplaces and individual workers within those workplaces, but also extends their reach globally. Organizations like More Perfect Union have even developed interactive tools like a map that tracks unionization certification applications of certain companies.
(c) New Methods and Markets
Unions are becoming more creative in both how they enter workplaces and what industries they pursue. For example, in 2022, Uber Canada agreed to a deal with United Food and Commercial Workers (“UFCW”) that provides delivery and delivery persons on the Uber platform across Canada to access UFCW Canada representation. Both Uber and UFCW have also committed to jointly pressure government to introduce legislation that provides better benefits and other rights to gig workers.
Unions are also finding ways to enter new markets. Recently, 15 workers at a video game company voted unanimously to unionize under the UFCW, with workers citing economic concerns like the rising cost of rent, food and gas as one of the factors that drove their desire to unionize. According to CBC, this is an industry first for the games industry in Canada, and only the third in North America.
Some unions have even campaigned to improve work from home arrangements and embed such protections into collective agreements; a timely interest among many workers over the last two years.
Key Considerations for Employers
There is no doubt that this Summer and Fall, we will see increased labour activity in Canada in the form of organizing, applications for certification and strikes/lockouts, as workers feel the effects of rising costs of living.
Non-union employers will need to remain vigilant in the face of this reality. Employers should focus on:
(a) Employees (often incorrectly) believe their terms and conditions of employment or working environment are inferior to workplaces. Where possible, employers will want to identify ways to manage these feelings of instability and perceived unfairness. For example, shorter, more frequent performance evaluations and feedback allow employees to better understand their performance in real time which lessens the speculation and shock that sometimes comes with an annual review. In addition, being transparent about company performance and future plans avoids speculation and may even offer an increased sense of ownership to employees.
(b) Building a Better Work Environment. Unionization efforts often focus on perceived pain points and challenges within an organization with promise of change for the better. Employers should learn how to identify and address pain points among their employees. Where possible, offering job perks or benefits, may go a long way in minimizing these pain points.
(c) Effective Channels of Communication. Unionization efforts typically follow periods of employee dissatisfaction. If employees feel as though their ideas and experiences are being heard and considered by management, they may be less receptive to unionization. Employees should have a way to communicate with management whether it be through some online form or some other channel. Employers will want to find ways to be receptive to employee needs. Some ways to do so may include regular meetings or town halls and discussions between management and employees.
Whether they remain stable or increase, unionization efforts will always be a consideration for any company doing business in Canada. Our team is prepared to assist employers navigate this issue. Please do not hesitate to contact a member of our national Labour and Employment Law Group.