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The Explainer: Unionization

Know the basics of organized labour — from advocacy to dues
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Teaching assistants and other academic workers are unionized at U of T. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY
Teaching assistants and other academic workers are unionized at U of T. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY

Students entering the workforce today are navigating a labour market much different from that of their parents. As the workforce has changed, so too have perceptions of unionization.

While unions are varied and always evolving, the basics of their function, membership, and relevance to modern employment have a common basis.

What is a union?

A trade union is simply a collective of workers who agree to become a single bargaining unit and unite behind common goals. Organized labour in Canada originated in the skilled trades — such as printing, tailoring, and baking — but can be found today in a variety of workplaces.

“There is nothing inherent about being a professional in the field of computers or engineering that says… you could not benefit from a union,” Anil Verma, Professor Emeritus of Industrial Relations and HR Management at U of T’s Rotman School of Management, said in an interview with The Varsity.

“Your job is not standardized every month… Your job changes and evolves with knowledge. I think [you] could also benefit from unions, but it would have to be a different type of union than what you would have in a bank or factory or autoplant.”

Unionized workers are typically required to pay dues that are calculated as a percentage of their paycheck. These payments are set by union bargaining agents and are distributed within the union to pay for services and to support union members.

Union dues are mostly tax-deductible. The exceptions are initiation fees, charges not related to employer operations, and dues paid as a member of a pension plan.

Any worker in Canada has the right to become a member of a union under the Canada Labour Code. According to Statistics Canada, 75 per cent of public sector workers belong to a union, along with 16 per cent of private sector workers.

Youth in unions

Canada’s largest unions rely on a hierarchical approach, which gives preference to seniority and long-standing union membership. This could be one reason for falling unionization rates among youth: the percentage of unionized workers who are 25–44 years old has declined steadily between 1981 and 2014.

Another angle to consider is that, according to data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation in the US, full-time workers are more likely to be unionized compared to their part-time counterparts. This could contribute to declining unionization rates because contract and part-time professional work has become more common in the last 20 years, increasing from 1.4 million to 2.1 million jobs.

However, this category of workers may be in even greater need of the benefits that unionization brings. “Contract jobs, temporary jobs, part-time work… if you look at their vulnerability and precariousness, it’s even higher than in regular jobs,” Verma said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of work you’re doing. If you need protection — if you need the voice to be able to negotiate with your employer — you can form a union.”

Unions under COVID-19

Unions around the world have been working to ensure the rights of their workers to safety and compensation during the pandemic. In recent months, non-unionized workers in Canada have been twice as likely to lose their jobs during COVID-19-related shutdowns compared to their unionized counterparts.

One prominent example of large-scale job action occurred this past August, when more than 1,400 Dominion employees in Newfoundland walked out in protest of cuts to pandemic pay and layoffs. Dominion — a Newfoundland and Labrador-based subsidiary of Loblaw Companies Limited — employed more than 80 per cent of these workers in part-time positions.

“People have been left quite vulnerable through this pandemic,” Verma said. “In places where you have a good union — [where] you have a strong union — [employees have] been able to go and negotiate with the employer [for] protections for certain classes of workers.”