Work more for less pay? Welcome to “speedup: the new world of work — more jobs — and fewer people to do them. Outcome? Unpaid overtime and big-time stress. Corporate media perfected speedup in the newsroom, while cheering on anti-labour policies. Right-wing governments eliminate labour standards that protect workers, then introduce policies like austerity and free trade that transform the balance of power in the workplace.

What can labour do? Longtime Conservative pollster Allan Gregg advised delegates gathered in Toronto (just before Labour Day) at the founding convention of Unifor, to speak out: “If they [Canadians] … like what they see, their hearts and minds will follow.”

In the U.S., unorganized workers are taking job action. Fast food workers seeking higher minimum wages co-ordinate one-day strikes in various cities at different franchise outlets such as Burger King and McDonald’s. There “alt labor” organizations are supported by trade unions such as the Steelworkers and UFCW.

In Canada, newly elected Unifor President Jerry Dias immediately announced his intention to go on the offensive. Unifor will be establishing community chapters for independent workers, bringing industrial workers together in sector councils, and taking on the free trade/austerity agenda. 

A product of the merger of the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers (CEP), Unifor vows to reach out to young workers, as well as to make a place for the unorganized in its ranks.

Representing some 300,000 Canadians, Unifor becomes the largest private sector union in the country, just ahead of UFCW with some 250,000 members, and the Steelworkers with over 225,000.

Unifor draws on a proud inheritance of industrial unionism. CEP roots go back to the first printers’ unions formed in Quebec in 1827, and Toronto in 1832. In 1872, militant Ontario printers marched to win important limits to the working day and convinced John A. Macdonald to introduce “a Trade Union Act, which legalized and protected union activity.” 

Under first president Don Holder, CEP was formed in 1992 as a three-way merger of unions looking to create a stronger base to fight for jobs and social justice. 

The CAW was born in 1985 when the Canadian section of the United Auto Workers refused to buy into concession bargaining adopted by the UAW in the name of strengthening American industry. Following a strike at GM in Oshawa in 1937, the Canadian UAW had brought collective bargaining to Canada.

The CAW leadership declared independence from the UAW because first CAW President Bob White foresaw the need for a Canadian-based industrial strategy. With strong automotive industries in Asia and Europe penetrating world markets, Canadian governments needed to respond, or watch well-paying industrial jobs disappear.

As Sam Gindin points out in his history of the CAW, “The point is that the fundamental basis for the permanent insecurity of Canada’s working people remains: Canada’s economic integration into the United States and the gleeful acceptance of this integration on the part of ‘Canadian’ business.” 

CAW and the unions that made up CEP were active in opposing the free trade deal signed with the U.S. in 1988 because like its successor NAFTA, or the 1995 WTO agreement, the deals gave corporations a free hand to downsize operations and outsource work. Freer capital mobility reduced workers’ bargaining rights in every jurisdiction in the world.

Generations ago, trade unionists developed the concept of productivity to measure the increase in output per hour worked. The idea was to get companies to share increased income with the people who produced it, by putting hard numbers on the negotiating table.

Today, productivity is a management tool to get more work for less. Profit-seeking managers outsource employment, and employ unpaid interns and temporary workers. Manufacturing firms and even service industries shut down the workplace and send jobs offshore.

Recent joint action by CEP telecommunications workers and Canadian companies is a throwback to the postwar world, where companies and unions routinely worked together despite deep differences. Now the norm is giant corporations protected by international laws that thwart national sovereignty and encourage global expansion.

The creation of Unifor acknowledges Canadian trade unions need to respond to global corporate challenges with new strategic alliances, at home and abroad, and with renewed attention to the links between politics and the quality of working life.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.