Labour Day celebrations across Canada this year come at a time when organized labour is in the midst of redefining its role in the workforce as a decline in the manufacturing industry and the rise of contract and part-time workers has challenged its traditional focus.
Nelson Wiseman, director of Canadian studies at the University of Toronto, said that the significance of the holiday fails to resonate with many people outside the labour movement.
“Once upon a time, people were marching in the streets because they wanted to cut down the (workday) and a lot of people were involved in industry that was there, like manufacturing, but now it’s not the case,” says Wiseman.
“People don’t perceive that (unionized) workers are underpaid or unduly exploited, even though many of them may not be making huge amounts,” he adds. “People have more sympathy for you if you’re flipping burgers at McDonald’s.”
The principle aims of the first-wave labour movement — universal health care, welfare, the public education system — are now well-established in Canadian society. Outside of their collective bargaining obligations, Wiseman says, unions have been relegated to serving the role of watchdog.
The types of jobs new to the economy fall out of the traditional purview of unions: temporary service industry jobs and knowledge sector jobs and, in particular, the high-tech sector with a highly mobile workforce that has largely has evaded unionization.
Economic headwinds have forced unions to re-evaluate their brand and their purpose in an economy where steady employment is precarious.
“We recognize that are there are some challenges and we have to grow the labour movement because the economy itself is not the economy of the 50s, the 60s, and the 70s,” says Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress.
“In that regard we have to orient ourselves to the new workforce,” adds Yussuff, who says that the union’s effectiveness in negotiating pensions and better wages has been tested in recent years by governments and private sector employers.
“Nevertheless, I think we have a lot to celebrate. All of those good salaries and wages that our members make are spent in their communities and contribute to a successful and growing economy.”
In its first year of existence, Unifor — formed on Labour Day weekend 2013 by the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union — introduced new ways to bring workers from traditionally non-unionized jobs into the fold.
Notably among them, was the Canadian Freelance Union, which represents self-employed media professionals.
It’s also moved to solidify its community chapters program for unemployed former Unifor members, providing access to similar health insurance plans.
“We’ve had to do things differently as it relates to outreach,” said Unifor president Jerry Dias. “Our union very much plays a huge role in the community.”