Chapter 6: The Union

July 22, 2015



Canadian unions have a long history of struggle and victories, dating back to the early 1800s. 
Throughout the 19th century, education was a luxury and not a right. Most workers could not read or write and very few written records documenting their struggles and conditions exist today. The records we do have, however, show a big division between skilled (or “trade”) workers and unskilled workers. An unskilled worker usually could not earn enough money to house and feed a family. Women (paid half as much as men) and children (paid about one-third a man’s wage) worked to supplement the household income. 

The worst catastrophe that could befall any worker was an incapacity, through illness, injury or old age, preventing him or her from working. Workers also lived in fear of “recessions” and winter, since both caused the closure of industry and, therefore, high unemployment. A skilled worker fared much better, earning about three times that of their unskilled co-worker. 

Throughout most of the 1800s, unions were illegal. Legislation prohibited workers from organizing, joining or even talking about unions. The penalties for organizing were stiff: fines, jail, or worse – being shut out of the job market entirely. 

Still, organizing did happen: workers met in secret, with the knowledge that they would have a better chance of improving their lives speaking with one voice rather than as individuals. Fear of reprisal made workers protect each other’s identity and use the terms “Brother” and “Sister” instead of their real names. Today many workers still refer to each other as Brother and Sister as a form of respect and remembrance to those who fought to build the labour movement we can now openly belong to.

Coming together in solidarity

In 1886, the Trades and Labour Congress, one of the predecessors of our own Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), advocated policies like the 9-hour work day, nationalization of the railways, the setting of minimum health and safety conditions and the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. The Congress also advocated for the abolition of child labour and universal access to children’s education. 

Over the years, Canadian unions recognized the need to be active in the political arena and elect pro-labour governments to change legislation to benefit all of society. Our work to elect pro-labour parties such as the CCF and the NDP have resulted in universal health care, unemployment insurance benefits, pensions for the elderly, minimum wage standards, and standards ensuring a safe work place. 

The Canadian labour movement strives today for equity and equality under the banner of “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Collective agreements are still breaking new ground, forcing the court system and law-makers to take on a range of equality issues. The extension of employee benefits to same-sex partners, affirmative action programs and pay equity have all been first negotiated by unions, then challenged and upheld by the courts before provincial and federal legislators were forced to change the laws.

The globalization deception

In spite of all our advances, two-thirds of Canada’s labour force do not belong to a union. With the advent of globalization, more and more private industries with unionized workforces are closing their doors in Canada only to re-open them in developing countries, where the wage and labour standards may be low or even non-existent. Governments, as employers, are also jumping on the bandwagon by privatizing departments or selling them to the private sector. This not only eliminates well-paid, unionized positions but also gives Canadians less control over the public services they pay taxes to get. 

Today’s challenges

We face immense challenges today. The rift of precarity (unstable, precarious employment) is maintained among Canadian working people. Many unorganized workers are desperately poor or underemployed. Unemployment rates remain high; for young workers, it’s doubly so. Government and business leaders are happy to keep it that way.  

The business-owned media plays a big part in pitting workers against each other. Unionized workers are constantly attacked as greedy, unproductive or “out of touch” with today’s economic realities. Organized and unorganized workers are played off against each other on the picket line and in the workplace. 

Critics from corporate and government sectors say unions are too powerful and wealthy. This charge is ludicrous. Private industry and governments have created unprecedented challenges to the ability of unions to effectively represent their members. Companies close down or cut staff while demanding wage and benefit concessions. Governments legislate restrictions on the right to strike, they privatize public services and they enable corporate power through trade deals. 

Unions work to balance power in our society. For that, they are attacked and maligned. But we can take it!

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Stewards as educators and organizers

As steward, your main job is to help educate and organize around your conviction that the union is the most important voice that workers have. You must offer an alternative view of workers and the labour movement that portrayed by the business media, by government and by corporations. The integrity and power of unions must be defended with the same commitment, dedication and sacrifice which has built the trade union movement over the last 140 years. 

Welcome to the next chapter of labour history.  


Staying organized in the 21st century is going to prove as big a struggle as “getting organized” was in the 19th. The tactics of government and corporate owners are now much more sophisticated and insidious than ever before.

In the last few decades, governments have adopted neoliberal trade policies that benefit big business. These trade rules fully equipped the transnational corporations to use the threat of shifting production to another country when trying to negotiate concessions with the unions representing their workers. In fact, the only barrier to a mass exodus of transnational corporations and government departments has been the strength of unions and their collective agreements. 

The Canadian labour movement has remained strong. Contrary to what the politicians and business media would have us believe, polls indicate that the vast majority of union members like and believe in their unions.

A steward’s work: Educate, organize, connect

The task now is to unite and mobilize our members in order not just to protect workers’ rights and benefits, but to prevent a tearing apart of our society’s social fabric and a further widening of economic disparities. We do this through internal organization and education within our local unions. It’s all about member engagement. 

Go. Listen. Build. 

Rank and file activism and member engagement have always been the foundation of the labour movement. Stewards can’t do it by themselves. It takes all the local’s leadership to maintain member engagement and make ongoing listening, connecting and building a priority. 

Unions that make the commitment to internal organizing and education must emphasize these activities as a major function of stewardship. For this to happen, the union local must provide stewards with the time and the training.

Today’s paths to education 

Today, union stewards and other activists can access a range of educational programs and activities, including:

  • Courses & workshops. Most unions run face-to-face educational opportunities on an ongoing basis. You can find training and education in just about any union. 
  • Conferences. Unions hold regular conferences that address issues and build skills. Find out when and where your union conferences are!
  • Paid Educational Leave (PEL). PEL is a negotiated benefit whereby the employer contributes a percentage per member (2¢ per hour worked) to a union education fund and also guarantees the right of members to “leave” from work to attend courses.
  • Online & digital. Today, more and more unions and labour organizations are developing online and digital learning capacity to make labour education even more accessible and relevant. Find out what your union has available, and use the web as the great educational tool that it is. Social networking and digital communications tools make connecting with members and building community and connection even easier than before. 
  • Union meetings. Regular meetings give stewards a chance to discuss grievances and problems, evaluate performances, understand labour legislation, plan and co-ordinate strategies and learn more about their union.  
  • Stewards as member-engagers. The act of listening to the membership is a great way to show that you are ready to engage and build with members. 

7 tips to stay connected

  1. Remember to Go, Listen and Build
  2. Make it easy for members to provide feedback, for example through surveys and at meetings  
  3. Communicate out to members through things like print and electronic newsletters – but also listen to what members are saying 
  4. Want membership participation? Develop educational programs and workplace campaigns that are based on your members needs and priorities   
  5. Explore the use of social media to connect, educate and mobilize with your members 
  6. Hold regular face-to-face trainings for stewards and other activists 
  7. Measure your progress and change, modify or alter your programs as you see fit 

Staying organized helps answer the question of whether the union is doing its job. Being organized and engaging members is vital for all unions, particularly those whose collective bargaining power is limited. This is an era of austerity and precarity, but every workplace has issues that the union can use as a vehicle to demonstrate its effectiveness. Building union culture leads to union power. 

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