Who's living the GoodLife? Organizing a fitness empire.

| May 19, 2015
Photo: flickr/ jerryonlife

One in 34 Canadians hold a membership to a GoodLife Fitness centre. If you're one of those people, have you ever stopped to consider that your fitness instructor -- that formidable taskmaster who makes you do an inhumane number of push-ups -- is also a worker?

Neither did Workers United organizer Tanya Ferguson, until she was contacted by a group of Toronto fitness instructors looking to join a union.

Now a year into the campaign, Ferguson says that the GoodLife Fitness organizing drives are like nothing she has worked on before, and may offer an example of how unions can make headway into some unique sectors of the economy.

Good life does not extend to Goodlife Fitness employees

With 44 locations in the Greater Toronto Area, and over 300 locations nationwide, GoodLife Fitness is the biggest fitness chain in Canada and one of the top five biggest fitness chains in the world. GoodLife Fitness founder and CEO David "Patch" Patchell Evans has a sort of proselytizing fitness mission, and has vowed to continue growing the GoodLife Fitness brand until it is the largest corporately owned fitness chain in the world.

That is why, in January, Patchell Evans announced that the company has expressed interest in opening new GoodLife Fitness centres in former Target store locations,  hoping to reach the company's goal of operating 1,000 clubs from coast-to-coast.

"In Toronto right now, if you want to work in fitness, you're going to deal with GoodLife. They are everywhere," said Ferguson, "People who didn't work for them before, well GoodLife has bought their previous employer, so now they do. They are just everywhere."

Since 2007, GoodLife Fitness has grown by more than 100 per cent. "We want to continue growing until every Canadian is able to benefit from using one of our clubs," said Patchell-Evans in a press release.

Unfortunately that promise of the good life is not extended to the company's employees, many of whom are, or were, members of the club.

"The company is growing so quickly and there are people who have been working for GoodLife for decades and they are not really seeing the benefits," Ferguson explained.

Though we asked to speak with a GoodLife Fitness employee for this article, all of the fitness instructors involved in the organizing drive declined to be interviewed out of fear of employer retaliation. "Workers who have supported the union publicly have to watch their backs. Management has come down on us, they did fire an inside organizer, and we ended up having to file charges at the labour board," Ferguson explained.

While the wages could always be higher, Ferguson says that the priority issues for most workers are safety, fairness, and job security.

Toronto's GoodLife Fitness instructors are excluded from the coverage of Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, which means that if they are hurt at work, which is likely considering how physical their jobs are, they are not entitled to any compensation.

Because most instructors work more than one job to make ends meet, all income sources are in jeopardy if they get hurt while working at GoodLife Fitness.

"They do a physical job, so their bodies are on the line everyday," said Ferguson, "If you have another job not related to GoodLife, you could be screwed of your incomes from both places because you don't have any workplace insurance protection. So safety is a big one for these guys."

Another major issue for GoodLife Fitness instructors is the hidden costs associated with certification.

"They have to pay a company that GoodLife owns called CanFit Pro to get certified to work at GoodLife," Ferguson explained, "And then once they have the certification they have to pay a company, which also GoodLife owns, for the music that they are going to use in their class. And then they are going to have to pay another company for their uniforms. So people are paying out of their pockets to even work there. And the way the structure is set up, it's all owned by GoodLife, so there is a resentment and a financial burden. They are actually profiting off of people getting certified to work there in the first place."

Ferguson explains that workers feel that there is now a revolving door system where more experienced instructors are replaced by fresh recruits, who have to pay all the upfront costs of certification.

Extremely precarious work a challenge to union organizing

Fitness instructors work as freelance contractors, therefore, they deal with the same problems that many precarious workers face; inconsistent hours and job insecurity force them to work multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet, and in many cases, they have limited access to benefits and labour standards.

These conditions make precarious workers much harder to organize, compared with regularly employed full-time workers.

In addition, some GoodLife Fitness instructors are looking to make their careers as fitness instructors, while others teach on a more casual basis, creating different types of workers -- however, the union doesn't make a distinction between these types.

Therefore, hundreds of instructors are coming and going from different locations spread out all across the city and there's so much turnover within the workplaces that the union can only glean a rough estimate of how many workers are employed by GoodLife Fitness at any given time.

"What's unique about it is the fact that they really are an unconventional workplace," said Ferguson, "We have people who literally work four and five jobs because they like the industry," explained Ferguson, "they want to make a living in the industry but they are only teaching one or two classes a week at GoodLife, and they may be only working there two hours a week. We don't have any one anywhere else in our union like that. So it's different for us."

The challenge for organizers like Ferguson is how to reach all these people.

In a traditional union organizing drive, organizers will feverishly study a workplace to figure out internal dynamics, the distribution of labour, and the general mood of a place. They will try to meet with as many workers as they can because face-to-face contact usually yields more positive results.

But at the GoodLife Fitness drive a lot of those interactions are happening online. The union still tries to meet with workers as much as possible, but compared to a normal union drive, where organizers would meet face-to-face with at least 60 per cent of workers, the Goodlife Fitness drive probably meets closer to 30 per cent of workers face-to-face.

This is where social media comes in, as Ferguson says that it and texting are the main tools she has for reaching workers.

"It wasn't a luxury or a decision where we could say, 'how could social media enhance this campaign?' It's just the only way that we can run it because that's where the workers are," Ferguson explained, "It's like nothing we've done before, and we are learning a lot as we go." 

Letting the campaign live online also means that organizers have less controls over what gets said by workers and to workers.

"If you genuinely engage in social media in a way that actually gives workers a voice, you have no control over what's going to come," said Ferguson, "And in any type of campaign work you depend on having a little control. So it's definitely outside of our comfort zone. It's not a perfect system but it does allow for a certain momentum."

Given the changing nature of work, labour groups and workers are finding new and innovative ways to adapt. But a lot of those models, such as the Fight for $15 and Fairness or Our Walmart in the U.S, include going outside the traditional union structures.

Though the GoodLife Fitness campaign is being run differently, Ferguson says that union is ultimately gunning for Labour Board certification.

"Right now we are still pounding the pavement trying to collect union cards, and once we think we have a critical mass then we are going to file for a vote at the labour board and we'll do it the old-fashioned way." 

Maybe the GoodLife Fitness drive will provide unions with an example of how to do old fashioned a new way.

Ferguson says there's no precedent for this kind of organizing. "I wish there was but there's absolutely none. At the end of the day, we are trying to figure it out as we go."

You can watch the organizing campaign video here.

Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.



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