Labour Day 2012: Get ready to rumble

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

The Labour Day picnics and parades might be the calm before the storm for the labour movement this fall. On top of terrible job losses in manufacturing and resource industries, governments in Canada are sharpening their swords, preparing to do battle with the country's trade unions.

It's not just unions that should be worried. The lagging economy is failing all Canadians, whether in unions or not. Historically, the trade union movement has played a pivotal role in turning things around and raising living standards for everyone. But the political and bargaining strengths of unions are at one of the lowest points in decades, and opponents are preparing to take advantage of this weakened state.

In Ottawa, the Harper Conservatives have been drawing up war plans. When Parliament returns in a few weeks, a committee will be considering a Conservative private member's bill that would force unions to reveal unprecedented financial information, handing employers intelligence that could be used against their employees' unions.

On the provincial front, several parties have proposed U.S.-style "right to work" legislation. In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty is circumventing the bargaining process and forcing new working conditions on teachers and other education workers.

The conflicts ahead will be hard-fought, and according to our research, those unions that are prepared to reach out beyond their membership to engage Canadians stand the best chance of success.

A recent AbacusData poll conducted on behalf of our agency, Public Response, which works with the labour movement, found that a majority of Canadians nationwide agreed that unions do a good job of protecting their members' jobs (61 per cent). This acknowledgement remains true even for a majority of people who say they vote for Conservatives (53 per cent).

But when Canadians are asked if they think the gains made by unions benefit everyone, public opinion is divided. Roughly the same number of people agree (46 per cent) with the statement "The gains made by unions for their members also improve the lives of other Canadians" as those who disagree (42 per cent). So there is still a conversation going on about the wider role of the labour movement in Canada.

The key to increasing the labour movement’s impact is to regain its position as defender of all workers, those in and out of unions. The fact is, less than 30 per cent of workers are represented by unions, and those outside of unions are the worst off. They don't just work longer hours for less, in inferior working conditions; they are more vulnerable to mistreatment, layoffs, and general insecurity.  

There is a growing gap between union and non-union workers, and the pressure is mounting on unions to close the gap by lowering their expectations and accepting concessions. The best counter-offensive is for unions to reach out to those outside their ranks and find ways to address their issues alongside the issues of union members.  

This kind of approach is advocated by the forward-looking proposal for two of Canada's largest private sector unions, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), to turn themselves into a new union that would find a way to extend its reach to the millions of workers who are unlikely to join unions as they are currently structured.

Our research has uncovered a new generation of Canadians willing to sign up to the new union project. We've found that a majority (53 per cent) of younger Canadians under the age of 30 say they would join a union if given the opportunity. That's the highest level of any demographic we asked.

So, the question is whether in the next few years a new unionism will emerge able to reach these young people and bring them into the labour movement fold. 

So far, the signs are encouraging. For instance, at its convention this month, the CAW endorsed the new union proposal in a meeting with unprecedented transparency, webcast over the Internet to thousands of iPhone-toting young people for the first time (see

It's important that this Labour Day unions consider ways to build a powerful movement of workers that extends well beyond their members.

Everyone, union members or not, needs such a movement now more than ever.

Morna Ballantyne is a long-time labour analyst and Steven Staples is the president of Public Response, a digital agency that services leading non-profits and trade unions in the fields of online engagement and government relations. Polling results can be viewed at

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.