Section 5: The Union

October 7, 2015



19. Why Unions?

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.

Toronto printers strike gets (some of) the goods

It wasn't until 1872, an election year, when legislation came forward to legalize unions. The Toronto Printers (Guild) mounted a vigorous campaign for the 9-hour day and a 54-hour week. Opposition leader John A MacDonald, recognizing that the majority of printers were also land owners – and therefore voters – promised legislation to legalize membership in a union. 

True to his word, MacDonald’s government passed the Trade Union Act. The Act allowed the existence of and membership in unions, but prohibited workers from striking and it did not guarantee a union's recognition as bargaining agent by the employer. In fact, employers could actually request that an employee who missed work for whatever reason be jailed for being absent! 

It took many long, brutal strikes over the issue of union recognition before, finally, in 1943, a federal law gave recognition to unions to act as the sole collective bargaining agent for their members.

Early trade union action also set the stage for Canadian labour's tradition of fighting for universal social programs and the improvement of working conditions for all workers, organized or not.

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!

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. 

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20. Snapshot – Labour's Structure  

What is the CLC?

The Canadian Labour Congress is Canada’s major umbrella organization of national unions, provincial federations of labour and local labour councils. The CLC was founded in 1956 when the Trades and Labor Congress (TLC) and the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) merged. This merger meant that the majority of Canada’s labour organizations were unified under one umbrella organization. By joining forces, labour could accomplish more than it could as isolated unions. This still holds true today. 

What does the CLC do?

The Congress works with affiliates at the national level and maintains relationships with organized workers around the world. Our main purpose is to advocate for working people and promote labour’s ideas and policies to the federal government. We don’t get involved in local union functions like collective bargaining, but we do support local union’s capacities through education and training. 

How does the CLC work with provincial federations? 

The CLC-chartered provincial federations of labour and community labour councils closely monitor the activities of governments at their respective levels. This structure provides an important framework through which the CLC can network with other progressive organizations in mounting national, provincial and regional campaigns.  


Every third year, the CLC holds a national convention. These gatherings have been described as "the Parliament of Canadian Labour", since they are comprised of thousands of local union delegates. Conventions pass resolutions which determine the policies and priorities to be followed for the next three years. Every local union, provincial federation of labour and labour council is entitled to submit resolutions for consideration by the convention and to send at least one delegate.

Okay, you have big meetings. Then what? 

We turn resolutions into action. CLC staff people work with affiliates, help mobilize campaigns and provide special services, from education to organizing to communications. Any union member in Canada can access these services – and get involved.  

Go local: Labour councils 

Local labour councils are the best way to bring labour’s vision to life at the local level, specifically at municipal councils, boards and commissions. Councils bring together local unions in the community to provide strike support, help workers organize and offer education programs. They also play a lead role in organizing awareness campaigns such as the Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job and ending violence against women. 

Most labour councils across Canada have limited funds and no full-time staff. Their work is carried out by many unpaid elected officers, together with volunteers from amongst their delegates and other union members. Because the labour council is the umbrella organization at the community level, councils are financed through per capita taxes on CLC affiliates within the respective community. Although affiliation is not mandatory, all CLC affiliates are encouraged to join and stewards are encouraged to get involved. 

Like any labour organization, local labour councils are only as strong as their membership. This makes building strong, community-based labour councils a vital part of a strong national labour movement.

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21. Staying Organized

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. See the chapter on 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. 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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22. Why Are Unions Involved In Political Action?

There are two parts to the answer. The first part is "by tradition." The second part is "by necessity!"


Traditionally, unions have been involved in politics for three reasons: 

  1. To gain recognition of the right of workers to form unions and bargain collectively;
  2. To protect the gains they have won through collective bargaining; and, 
  3. To promote justice and equal economic opportunity for all.  

Workers have achieved much by acting collectively to set our own agenda and then elect politicians who either believed in the same things as us or who "saw the light" because of the number of votes we represent. 

We saw this way back in 1872, when the Toronto Printers' Strike for a 9-hour workday "inspired" then-Prime Minister John A. MacDonald to introduce legislation legalizing unions. And we see it today, as politicians in municipal, provincial and federal levels of office recognize the strength of workers' collective political power.

This is why governments and business go to such great lengths to convince the public that unions and social organizations are just “special interest groups” that don’t work for the greater good. 


Our experience in the last several decades has shown us that legislation that governs our destiny in the workplace can eliminate hard-won contractual and social gains. Big business, probably the biggest "special interest group" in our society, has no problem lobbying the courts and politicians to further their goals. 

Think of:

  • Legislation ending strikes or even the right to strike in both the public and private sectors; 
  • Court injunctions against the right to picket; 
  • Legislated wage and benefit cuts, layoffs and "austerity" that affect us all.

All of society is being affected by government's current push for “austerity”. This really means less protection of workers’ rights on the job, less health care, less unemployment insurance, less social assistance, less retirement income, fewer child care options – but, amazingly, more profits for business. 

Business groups actively set their agendas and use their wealth and organizations, such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Business Council on National Issues, among others, to lobby and push politicians to achieve them. 

And while we don't have their financial power – we have our people power, and tons of it. Our wealth is our collectivity as workers and as a society. Our organizations are our unions, social movements and political parties. 

Acting politically is the logical and enlightened thing to do

You wouldn’t elect your bosses as union stewards; you know they wouldn’t represent your best interests on the job. It doesn’t make any more sense to elect management persons to represent our interest in politics. 

Union members know in their gut how to best change a situation they aren't pleased with: use their collective strength. If they aren't happy with how the workplace is, they can – collectively – go on strike. If workers feel that the union leadership in the local isn't responding to their needs, they vote them out. 

It is our collective strength and our commitment to political action that will convince governments and business to do the right thing. To achieve this, we must educate and organize our membership around our issues, strengthen our coalitions with like-minded social groups, and elect politicians who represent us – and hold them to our agenda. 

It's a fine tradition – and a current necessity. 

WATCH: Union stewards talk politics

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