Organizing precarious workers: Looking for a new model

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Photo: flickr/Caleb Roenigk

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Today, there exists no industry in which you will not find precarious workers.

Service industry workers face low wages and hard working conditions. The plight of temporary foreign workers has made headlines this year, along with the increased awareness of the sometimes multiple internships young people have to do before they can find full-time employment.

Precarity, however, isn't an issue born solely by fast food employees or young people. It is a generational spanning phenomenon, which impacts janitors trying to beat back sub-contracting companies to members of the media forced into short term contracts and freelance situations.

Union leaders acknowledge that for the labour movement to have a future, they will have to engage and recruit these workers. The question is -- how?

A precarious future

Based on statistics alone, the situation for unions doesn't look terrible in Canada. The union density rate has hovered at just over 30 per cent a year, indicating to the causal observer that unions have kept a steady grip on their membership.

But as a number of people have pointed out, the statistics available do not paint the whole picture. The number of unionized workers in the private sector -- which would account for organizing in manufacturing, for example -- has dropped, while the numbers have stayed steady in the public sector. Union density also remains low in industries like food services.

At the same time, research indicates there has been a rise in precarious labour. However, it's difficult to even define what precarious work is, making attempts to quantify it more difficult. The most agreed upon definition is work that comes with none of the job security or benefits that a secure job offers.

In a report released by Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO), researchers studied precarious labour in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA). They found that 18 per cent of employed workers between the ages of 25 and 64 in the GTHA were precariously employed. In another study, which also included 15 to 24 year olds, the amount of precarious workers jumped about seven per cent between 1989 and 2007.

One of the most interesting parts about PEPSO's research is that it shows that almost everybody experiences precarious work. Women and men were just about even, while those who had university degrees showed no major difference between those who do not. Some trends did emerge, however. Precarious work disproportionately affects racialized people and new immigrants to Canada.

There's no indication this trend will end. Manufacturing -- one of the areas where union density is flagging -- has also become the area where you most likely to find precarious workers.

Union advantage?

Just after the Unifor founding convention, Unifor President Jerry Dias told rabble that "Young people have been completely betrayed by Canada." And at the Canadian Labour Congress Convention earlier this month, panels throughout the day and after several sessions highlighted the needs of precarious workers.

There's good reason for these actions. Leaders in the labour movement are aware that they need to start organizing workers both precarious and young workers if they hope to maintain a union density that sits above 30 per cent, much less increase it.

But the traditional labour organizing model may not be the best one for organizing precarious workers -- not because of the union itself, but because of the many challenges that come with organizing. 

"We do have to rethink the ways in which we create forms of representation for workers," said Stephanie Ross. She is an associate professor at York University who studies labour. She notes that while organizing a shop may work at a factory, it might not a fast food chain where it's easy for the employer to shut the store down and move down the block.

There are also legal roadblocks that make it difficult to organize precarious workers in Canada. To certify a union, the organizers have to undergo two hurdles -- a card signing campaign where at least 60 per cent of the workers have to sign and a certification vote that takes place after the cards have been submitted to the labour relations board.

"Research is very clear in showing that the time between submitting the cards signed and having the vote is a time when the employer…can intervene to dissuade people from voting for the union," explained Ross.

Unions also don't get the employee list at workplaces they are organizing, which means that they have to rely on guess work to ensure that they are meeting the threshold. This can backfire -- recently, Unifor had to withdraw a certification application for three Toyota plants in Ontario after it was revealed that hey had misunderestimated the amount of workers by about 1,000.

For precarious workers, the time between signing a card and the certification could mean getting fired or other consequences. Plus the transient nature of some precarious work, like fast food workers or temps, means that organizing a certification vote can be difficult at best.


Unions definitely face obstacles to organizing. But new models of labour organizing have been developed to help address the needs of precarious workers. Ross describes them under the umbrella term of "alt-labour."

These new models don't go on strike -- they take to the streets. They also try and enact legislation that supports workers rights and if they can, they help groups of workers take the step to join a union -- if that's what they want.

Over the next week, I'll explore three of these different models. On Tuesday, we'll look at workers action centres. On Wednesday, we dive into the world of sectoral organizing. And on Friday, to round out the series, we learn about Unifor's community chapter intiative.

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Photo: flickr/Caleb Roenigk

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