State of the Unions

Organized labour no longer protects Canada’s most vulnerable workers

Illustration by Kelsey Heinrichs

In May 2011, during the Canadian Labour Congress’s quarterly executive meeting, two of the country’s most influential union bosses, Ken Lewenza, president of the Canadian Auto Workers, and Dave Coles, head of the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union of Canada, found themselves sitting side by side in a conference room at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The speakers were taking turns at the mike bemoaning the tattered state of the labour movement. “One horror story after another,” recalls Coles, a cheerfully gruff sixty-five-year-old fond of making outrageous political statements. Lewenza sports a big gut and a cockeyed squint, and draws from an equally salty vocabulary. Both men are politically savvy characters, with outsize personalities straight from central casting.

The tales of woe recited that day were all too familiar. Coles had spent the past five years in charge of a union that lost 30,000 members during the demise of the forestry industry, only to be hit again by the collapse of Nortel Networks. Lewenza, who started at the Chrysler assembly plant in Windsor, Ontario, and succeeded Buzz Hargrove in the top CAW position in 2008, had inherited a sprawling union with members in dozens of sectors, from automotive to health care to railways. Many of CAW’s larger industrial locals had been slammed by the double whammy of the high Canadian dollar and the waves of post-2008 bankruptcies in Ontario’s manufacturing heartland. From a 2005 peak of 265,000 members, CAW had shrunk by 25 percent, and many of those losses involved well-paid factory workers who contributed the hefty dues that make up a large chunk of the union’s revenues.

Meanwhile, political attacks on public sector unions in both the United States and Canada were becoming noisier, with strident calls for steep concessions on wages and benefits. In Toronto and other cities, right-wing municipal politicians threatened to break civil service unions or withdraw their right to strike. As the speeches dragged on, Coles leaned over to Lewenza and whispered, “This just doesn’t work. We’ve got to be able to respond in a better way.”

“Maybe,” Lewenza replied, “we should have a conversation about how we strengthen the labour movement.”

A few days later, the two men repaired to a nearby steak house, where they scarfed down pricey cuts of beef and considered joining forces to create the largest private union in Canada, a 300,000-member juggernaut with enough political weight to combat the anti-labour sentiment of the post-recession period.

On paper, the idea made sense. To use the language of business, there were synergies: CAW is primarily based in Ontario and Quebec, while CEP has a healthy base in western Canada. Established in 1985 after splitting from the United Auto Workers, CAW was an expansion-minded organization that had already absorbed forty-four smaller unions. Meanwhile, CEP, formed in 1992 from the merger of three smaller unions, had many members working in growth sectors, such as Alberta’s oil patch. It also represented hundreds of journalists across Canada, ensuring that its activities received plenty of attention from the media.

Lewenza thought the timing could be fortuitous: the once-obscure issue of income inequality was becoming conversation fodder across Canada and would give birth to the Occupy movement a few months later. Right-of-centre politicians like Ontario Tory leader Tim Hudak and Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall were pledging to gut long-standing labour laws, following the lead of governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and other states, and the federal Tories were short-circuiting labour negotiations. The mounting sense of conflict smelled of opportunity. “When you’re in a crisis,” he observes, “it is quite frankly easy to say, what are our weaknesses and strengths? ”

As in many industrialized countries, Canada’s labour movement has endured a long, grinding decline that began well before the 2008–09 recession. Just under 30 percent of Canada’s workforce is unionized, but that proportion has remained stable for several years due to the growth of the public sector (the comparable US figure is a mere 12 percent). By contrast, the rate among Canada’s private sector employees stands at a slim 16 percent, and the so-called union density rate has fallen gradually, as more firms outsource their operations to low-wage or non-union jurisdictions, or take tough measures to ensure that unions don’t gain a toehold inside their facilities.

In big Canadian cities, professional jobs or high-paying factory gigs are hard to come by for the thousands of new immigrants who grab service jobs with low pay and no benefits. Urban income disparity levels have increased steadily, in lockstep with the long-term decline in stable unionized jobs. The upshot is a troubling kind of socio-economic sorting that has rolled through residential areas in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. University of Toronto urbanist Richard Florida has shown that income gaps in the US tend to be the widest in urban areas where unions are weak. Here in Canada, we have seen similar results, albeit without the punitive labour laws.

One reason is that Ottawa has allowed employers to import tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers, who have few legal rights, earn below-minimum wages, and avoid union organizers. Persistently elevated youth unemployment rates—about 14 percent for fifteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, or twice the national average, according to Statistics Canada—all but guarantee employers a continual supply of baristas and retail clerks who will work part time for minimum wage to pay off hefty student loans. Furthermore, a new study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows that youth unemployment rates in Ontario are now worse than in US Rust Belt states such as Ohio.

Because of this proliferation of “disposable labour,” says CCPA economist Armine Yalnizyan, large corporations now sit on billions in cash reserves, enjoy historically low tax rates, and have failed to do their part to ease the national employment picture. Former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney made the same argument at a CAW convention in August 2012.

Given that hundreds of thousands of Canadians hold dodgy, low-paying jobs with lousy benefits and little job security, one might conclude that there has never been a better time for enterprising labour organizers. A new form of unrest is already percolating in parts of the US. In recent months, non-unionized fast-food workers have staged daring protests, with “alt-labour” activist groups springing up to organize campaigns, employing tactics similar to those used by labour groups in the 1930s and ’40s. Nothing quite like that has occurred here, but Canadian organizers for UNITE HERE—a scrappy international union that represents hotel, casino, and restaurant workers in Toronto, Vancouver, and other cities in Canada—have upped the ante lately with aggressive outreach and media-savvy protests in high-visibility locations, such as Toronto’s Eaton Centre.

While early labour groups set up health and social welfare organizations in blue-collar neighbourhoods, established industrial unions such as CAW and CEP had become remote and disconnected from the new urban landscape. “If unions can’t figure out how to work with immigrants and temporary foreign workers,” says Yalnizyan, who comments on labour issues for CBC and the Globe and Mail, “you’ve got an unhappy ending.”

Meanwhile, corporations have gone out of their way to invest significant resources in a wide range of local social causes, buying goodwill (and brand recognition) in the community.

While private sector leaders are lauded for their public-spirited philanthropy, organized labour remains an all-purpose scapegoat for conservative politicians such as Tim Hudak, who rails about “union bosses and special interests.” Others, like Toronto mayor Rob Ford, have taken the attacks one long step further, privatizing services while disparaging municipal workers as “garbage.” (It doesn’t help that powerful construction trade unions occasionally find themselves associated with organized crime or blatant attempts to pad public sector contracts.)

Canadians harbour conflicted views about unions. According to a 2011 study by the Environics Institute, which has surveyed attitudes and values for many years, “A majority of Canadians continue to believe unions have too much power for the good of the country.” But the pollsters also detected a cross-current in public opinion: “An even stronger majority also believe that unions are important and effective institutions, in terms of protecting employees’ rights in the workplace and improving working conditions for all Canadians.”

Anil Verma, a long-time University of Toronto labour relations expert, explains that surveys consistently show that about a third of Canadian workers say they would like to join a union. But the labour movement has so far failed to find ways to connect with Canadians who either know they might benefit from a union job or feel there is a broader social benefit. He wonders why unions haven’t capitalized on the new employment realities, offering new types of membership arrangements that provide some of the benefits available to those with fully unionized jobs. “Part of the inability of unions to reach out to new members relates to their own structure,” he says. “If the union movement was starting out today, it would look totally different.”

Several months after Lewenza and Coles had their initial meeting, the two unions released a short internal discussion paper that candidly scoped out the external political challenges, as well as the failure of Canada’s provincial labour federations and the CLC to make a compelling public case for unions. Tasked with advancing labour’s interests through policy, the federations had grown top heavy, ineffective, and dysfunctional: “If unions do not change, and quickly,” the paper said, “we will steadily follow the US unions into continuing decline.”

Much was at stake. The combined union would have annual revenue of about $100 million, with another $135 million in a strike fund. It would involve some 400 paid staff positions—field organizers, negotiators, researchers, and admin staff—as well as outlays for legal fees, training, and communications.

Many large unions today have members sprinkled across a wide range of sectors, the result of successive mergers and raids. The combined CAW and CEP would represent more than 300,000 employees in virtually all corners of the economy, everyone from journalists to forestry workers, low-paid retail clerks to high-earning air traffic controllers.

In the era when CAW represented almost every worker at the Big Three’s Canadian assembly and engine plants, as well as many auto parts firms, it had enormous leverage. But it has been a long time since auto workers dominated CAW’s ranks, although the leadership has almost always been controlled by former car and aerospace workers. At CEP, Coles started his career in a pulp and paper mill in the coastal town of Crofton, British Columbia, but in recent years the membership has extended into such tech companies as Nortel, along with places like Fort McMurray, Alberta, where a large, prosperous CEP local represents oil sands workers who make six figures. The question was whether a union as diverse as the combined CAWCEP could aspire to the same kind of clout.

Not all unions are spread quite so thin. UNITE HERE has focused its organizing efforts on a handful of sectors that employ thousands of workers in menial jobs. Unlike the proposed CAWCEP, its organizers have sought to broaden their base within specific sectors versus simply fishing where the fishing’s good. As the union expands its reach within a given sector, the financial penalty for operating a union shop declines for individual firms.

UNITE HERE, with 250,000 members and 50,000 of them in Canada, is a foil to the established blue-collar and civil service unions that dominate the Canadian labour scene. The union formed in 2004 in a merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE). Within a few years, the group was making waves in the North American tourism industry with a highly publicized campaign, dubbed Hotel Workers Rising, to improve working conditions in hotels, casino resorts, and convention centres, which employed tens of thousands of women, immigrants, and visible minorities. This vulnerable workforce calls to mind the labour movement’s raison d’être a century ago.

Every month, UNITE HERE organizers do hundreds of home visits with members of Local 75, which represents about 9,000 hotel, restaurant, and casino workers in the Greater Toronto Area. Late one sultry summer afternoon, I tagged along for one such visit with David Sanders, a long-time UNITE HERE organizer. He was checking in with Rosa, a middle-aged woman who works for a busy downtown eatery.

“We’re constantly trying to figure out how to get our members involved,” said Sanders, who hails from Winnipeg and looks like James Dean. He has been an organizer since graduate school, when in the early 1990s he began helping clerical workers at Yale University push back against an administration notoriously hostile toward unions. There he learned the committee model of organizing, a determined, in-your-face strategy intended to keep members directly engaged in the business of defending their rights in the workplace. Paid organizers for large unions will never be as effective at advocating for improvements to working conditions as the employees themselves, so UNITE HERE gets individual workers to organize, stage demonstrations, and confront unpleasant managers. The goal is to have at least 10 to 20 percent of the membership from each local actively involved in stirring things up. “It’s an alternative to the grievance process, which works against militancy,” explained Sanders. “We don’t just do it during contract fights.” UNITE HERE bears far more resemblance to the activist style of labour organizers from the 1930s and ’40s than to well-established industrial unions.

We met Rosa, a diminutive single mom who came from the Philippines two decades ago, at a Tim Hortons in the gritty downtown Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale, home to thousands of immigrant families. She perched tentatively at the table, and obviously felt uneasy speaking in front of a reporter, even though she was assured her real name would not appear in the story. Clutching a handbag across her chest, she responded to Sanders’ gentle probing with clipped answers.

Rosa has worked for years at Richtree (formerly Mövenpick). In 2005, the chain was acquired by a hedge fund that now seemed determined to aggressively manage down labour costs. Managers had been fired, and the new ones were cracking the whip. Her downtown location, at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, had closed, and the company had laid off the entire staff, only to announce that it was opening a new outlet across the hall—a move that sounded like union busting to Sanders.

“How do you feel about going on strike? ” he asked.

“Last resort, I guess,” shrugged Rosa, who had been involved with strikes in the Philippines. “They ignore us.” Then she began talking about a new manager who had accused her of spending too much time on union business. Sanders wanted to know more.

“I’m talking to the rest of my co-workers,” she said in a half-whisper, smiling wanly. “They targeted me because they know I’m talking to people inside. I said, ‘No way. I’m working for the company. I’m just standing up for my rights.’ ”

“When you pushed back, did he back off? ”

“The communication between management and the people is so distant. He stands like this—” she crossed her arms tightly. “He never says good morning to us. So many bad words he says.” Her voice trailed off.

While few people think of luxury hotels as sweatshops, the work is gruelling. The chains want rooms cleaned in as little as fifteen minutes, and employees now suffer more debilitating injuries on the job because mattresses have become so heavy. Moreover, many hotels still effectively practise racial sorting when it comes to hiring. Front-of-house employees tend to be white (and better paid), while back-of-house staff are more often people of colour.

During the booming mid-2000s, UNITE HERE had a compelling story, media savvy, and excellent leverage, because employers couldn’t just shift the jobs overseas: a luxury hotel is where it is. The union carefully targeted global chains such as Hilton and Starwood that operated in cities preparing for large, tourist-driven events like film festivals or conventions. It recruited celebrities (Danny Glover, Martin Sheen) to make picket line appearances. Unite Here’s high-visibility campaigns—noisy protests in downtown areas, the use of flash mobs—also underscored the realities of our urban age: sprawling cities characterized by ethno-cultural diversity, economies dominated by the service sector, and growing gaps between the haves (symbolized by hotel guests) and the have-nots (the hotel workers who cater to their needs).

UNITE HERE also developed a great brand. The name speaks for itself, while the red, white, and black logo is clean, eye catching, and evocative of activist-author Naomi Klein’s No Logo anti-brand imagery. Then there is the exclamation point that punctuates the UNITE HERE! logo, in a sharp contrast to the clunky insignia that have long decorated union placards and banners.

Local 75 president Lis Pimentel, who leads a group that forced out several Mob-connected HERE officials in the mid-’90s, says that her union has succeeded in persuading many major hotel chains to agree to contracts with common expiry dates, “so we can all line up together,” as well as provisions that allow UNITE HERE to organize workers in new locations.

While industrial unions have watched manufacturers ship jobs to Asia, UNITE HERE’s numbers have been growing at a healthy clip. Local 75’s ranks in hospitality expanded by 6 percent last year, and Pimentel knows her challenge is to keep up with the industry’s growth as a way of preserving the union’s bargaining clout.

UNITE HERE’s lean Canadian operation has little interest in the kind of nationalism that dominates the rhetoric of CAW, CEP, and other unions. Pimentel’s organization is dealing with global companies that own properties across North America: “If the border doesn’t matter to them,” she says, “it doesn’t matter to us.” Jorge Hurtado, legal counsel for Local 75, adds that the members don’t see national identity as an issue either. “Nobody has told me that they wish we had a maple leaf on our flag.”

Rather, the focus has been to confront the working conditions that hospitality industry employees like Rosa regularly face: abusive supervisors, erratic scheduling, and taxing workloads with little in the way of additional compensation. “The service sector is here, and it’s here to stay,” observes Pimentel. “Do we want it to be an industry where people can have real lives and raise families? Let’s take an industry and build it so people can work in it and have middle-class lives.”

When CAW and CEP finally began the long slog of plotting out the terms and conditions of their alliance in 2012 and early 2013, they predictably reverted to the plodding bureaucratic style that characterizes so much of what labour organizations do these days. Negotiations quickly settled into a protracted union-on-union bargaining session, with all of the subtext one might expect. “We called bullshit on each other quite regularly,” chuckles Coles, who had his antennae up from the get-go. “I’ve witnessed turf wars and arguments about raiding. Some unions looked at workers like chattel.”

It soon became apparent that caw and cep had different cultures, in everything from how they collected dues, to the nature of the floor debates at their conventions and the governance structures of their leadership teams. CAW was highly centralized, while CEP was not. Between the two unions, they had 700 locals, each with its own shop stewards, organizers, administrators, and elected officials—20,000 in all, making the combined union woefully over-governed. Streamlining “is clearly job one,” Lewenza told me as we sat in a boardroom at CAW’s glass office block in suburban Toronto. “The new union can’t deliver the expectations with 20,000 leaders and 700 locals. It’s impossible.”

They also faced ideological differences. CAW’s politics have tended to be centrist and pragmatic. In 2006, former president Buzz Hargrove, a shrewd deal maker, caused a huge stir in the labour movement when he publicly backed several Liberal candidates during the 2006 federal election, a move that earned him the lasting opprobrium of the NDP and some public sector unions.

CEP is known for tolerating more fractious debates at its conventions. It never broke with the NDP (although it endorsed the Bloc Québécois), and it had taken more hardline positions in recent years—for example, calling for nationalization of the oil sector in 2011. (In 2001, CEP bankrolled a legal challenge to the privatization of a large part of Ontario’s electricity system and succeeded in blocking the $4-billion initial public offering in court.)

For all of the left-wing rhetoric, senior CEP officials have pursued precisely the same tough management decisions as their private sector employers had. According to Coles, the national office downsized sharply in the wake of 2008, and had to spend millions on legal retainers to defend members’ pension plans during bankruptcy proceedings. “We did everything we could frickin’ think of,” he says. “It made us quite scrappy. Our membership was scared shitless.”

But beyond the negotiations over the small print lay a much larger, more existential problem. If the point of the exercise was to increase the labour movement’s clout, how would the newly formed organization go about achieving this goal when four in five Canadians believed unions were only concerned about their own members’ welfare, and nearly as many felt labour did little to help the poor and the disadvantaged?

Late last fall, the negotiators called on the Toronto office of a lefty polling and communications firm for help. Founded by veteran NDP strategist Bob Penner, Stratcom has a reputation for delivering unflinching reality checks to labour and other progressive organizations. Outlining the many all-too-familiar challenges, Stratcom partner John Willis advised the CAWCEP team to “rebuild your relationship with the public.” The new union, like its predecessors, was in danger of falling out of step with the rapidly changing Canadian workforce.

It was also in danger of falling out of step with its own membership, as Stratcom revealed when it began conducting focus groups with CAW and CEP members in February and March 2013. Many said they thought about their unions mostly during contract talks, and contrary to hard-boiled union rhetoric they spent little time dwelling on the larger question of working conditions. The new union faced “a branding problem par excellence,” which could threaten its ability to organize and influence public policy. To survive, it would need a makeover.

One morning in early May, senior members of the CAWCEP negotiating team sequestered themselves in a meeting room at Toronto’s downtown Sheraton Hotel. Lewenza and Coles were in attendance, as well as the brand strategists from Stratcom. The agenda: to unveil a proposed name and logo for a union not yet formally ratified by its rank-and-file members.

The session marked the culmination of an intensive months-long effort by Stratcom and a Toronto firm, Pivot Design Group, to hone in on an identity for the combined union. The consultants had sifted through 7,000 survey responses, as well as feedback from dozens of focus group sessions, in which the consultants asked participants to suggest animals to describe the new union. Many mentioned “elephant,” “whale,” or “tiger.” A few, tellingly, suggested “unicorn.”

The new moniker had to be bilingual and punchy, with the ability to grow, and it had to appeal to a broader audience. In short, it had to be something like “UNITE HERE.”

The consultants dimmed the lights and projected the redesigned brand identity on two digital screens. The logo appeared, featuring a reddish shield with a stylized U over a made-up name, Unifor, rendered in a hipster mix of upper and lower case letters. Gone was that self-conscious red maple leaf in the CAW logo, and all of those fussy little graphics in CEP’s triangle badge. The symbolism borrowed more from the language of consumer marketing than from working-class activism.

“The logo button blew my doors off,” recalls Coles, who promptly donned the Unifor lapel buttons on his suit jackets. Other senior officials were less enthusiastic. “It’s hard for me to judge a new name,” Lewenza told the group that day, “because I’ve got CAW tattooed on my ass.”

Stratcom and its consultants knew, however, that the rebranding was just the beginning. They would now need to sell the package—the new name, a greater political presence, and a mandate to step up organizing efforts—first to 300,000 members across Canada, and then to the public. Willis urged Lewenza and Coles to co-host telephone town halls for thousands of CAW and CEP members, to win their support for the proposal.

When 12,000 people were called in one session, the exchanges became unusually frank. One CEP member from Ajax, Ontario, accused the union of being “horrible” at communications, despite its name. What would Lewenza do to fix the problem?

Coles jumped in first, acknowledging somewhat defensively that connecting with the rank and file has always been a problem: “Are we perfect at it? Absolutely not. We have a tough time getting people to go to membership meetings; we try emails, any method we can.” He pledged that the new union would do better.

Then Lewenza weighed in. The next leaders, he said, would have to make more effort to be visible, both by visiting workplaces often, and by using best practices, including technologies such as the telephone town halls. “To tell you the truth,” he confessed, “I wasn’t too sure of this town hall meeting today, but seeing the people line up to ask questions, it’s one more form of communication we should use in the future, where people can be honest about their union, and we can react honestly to their challenges.”

They got plenty of honesty when the public saw the new name and logo. A university marketing professor dismissed the effort as silly. The Toronto Star reported that the new brand had met with blank stares. Then there was this left hook, from a CAW member who worked at the Chrysler plant in Windsor. “Unifor sounds like a multinational kind of company,” he told a reporter from the Windsor Star. “It doesn’t sound like something [that] instills solidarity.”

If the labour movement has a patron saint, it might be Chicken Little. For years, union leaders have warned ominously, but not always convincingly, about the so-called corporate agenda and full-frontal assaults on ordinary working people. The rhetoric, however, often felt rote and cliché ridden. But in the past decade, the waves of plant closures, bankruptcies, and takeovers in Canada’s manufacturing and forestry sectors have underscored that the warnings were no longer just about reminding members why they paid all of those dues.

Several closely watched legal cases are now wending through the Canadian court system, all focused on a crucial question for union leaders: do the freedom of association and expression provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms establish a right to strike? For years, the Supreme Court stuck to three 1980s rulings, which held that no such right existed. However, those precedents were challenged a few years ago in a landmark BC case, and appeals are now working their way up the judicial food chain, with important decisions expected in the next few years.

Politically, things seem to be pulling in the opposite direction. The federal Tories have waded into the middle of several high-stakes contract negotiations, including one involving Air Canada. Earlier this year, a Conservative backbencher tried to push through a private member’s bill, C-377, that would require unions to publicly disclose their budgets, including expenditures for political or advocacy activities. (A broader US law, known as the Taft-Hartley Act and enacted amid postwar anti-Communist fervour, forced unions to dial back their activities.) The bill made it to the Senate before Hugh Segal, a Red Tory, succeeded in killing it.

In Ontario last year, Tim Hudak released a policy paper that calls for an end to the six-decade-old Rand formula, which makes it mandatory for all members to pay their dues, and requires employers to collect and remit those funds to the unions that represent the workers. Killing it would put some unions in serious financial difficulty. The Hudak policy, observes Anil Verma, “is an extreme and radical change in our labour regime in the history of Canada.” What’s more, the Tories have said they are serious about implementing it if they come to power in the next provincial election, in 2015. “Not since the 1980s have these organizing principles been targeted in such a fundamental way,” said one veteran labour mediator (who asked not to be named).

Unifor’s founders hope that such antagonistic political agendas will help mobilize its members to call for a coherent policy agenda. Less clear is whether the union can translate those big numbers into effective political action. Its organizing budget has already been set at $10 million per year, or 10 percent of annual revenue—an increase from CAWCEP levels, but still well below the proportion that UNITE HERE spends on recruiting at new workplaces and ensuring that the existing rank and file remains fired up.

Spending aside, Unifor will have to become more focused in its efforts, targeting specific sectors instead of grabbing for members wherever it can. “I envision putting a big map on the wall and looking at union density,” said Lewenza. “It’s hard to accommodate everybody.”

In addition to conventional organizing campaigns that revolve around certification drives, Unifor plans to test out a soft sell approach intended to extend its reach beyond the confines of members’ places of employment. The goal is to establish a network of community chapters, like-minded groups—students, freelancers, temp agency workers, retirees, and so on—who will pay a small monthly fee, for which they will receive certain services from their local, such as help with EI or workers’ compensation claims. Tim Carrie, a veteran CAW organizer who was involved with devising the community project, says the ultimate goal is to extend the new union’s reach into hard-to-organize pockets of the labour force. Still, much will depend on whether the leadership teams of Unifor’s far-flung locals decide to pursue this kind of outreach. “We have to create the real interest in the local union to do this,” he says. “The locals need to be open minded.”

Other labour leaders are also looking for ways to expand their influence. In Toronto, for example, the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and various skilled trades unions have begun connecting with activists and social welfare organizations in low-income areas to push for community benefits agreements on large public works projects such as transit lines.

These deals—which have become common in cities like Los Angeles and Glasgow, and are negotiated by local government agencies—ensure that some of the funds for civil or private construction projects reach the communities in which they are situated, for example, as grants to neighbourhood initiatives, or skilled apprenticeships for unemployed youth. By contrast, Unifor’s as-yet-untested community chapters program remains somewhat fuzzy (the only current example is the Canadian Freelance Union, a tiny CEP affiliate in Thunder Bay, Ontario, that offers health benefit packages and other services for a monthly fee). Even Carrie acknowledges that much trial and error will occur before the strategy delivers results.

Over Labour Day weekend, several thousand CAW and CEP delegates descended into the bowels of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to formally consummate the marriage that had been negotiated over the previous eighteen months. In cavernous meeting rooms festooned with Unifor’s logo and slogans, the members of this giant new entity mingled and gossiped and cheered at all the right moments as senior officials made pep rally speeches about Unifor’s future.

I arrived on the second day, just in time to run into the newly elected president, long-time CAW negotiator Jerry Dias, as he made his way through the winding corridors leading into the conference rooms. A short, broad-shouldered man with a hawkish face and a shock of black hair, he had come up through the ranks, serving most recently as Lewenza’s second-in-command.

As he strode through the convention centre, recounting war stories to a pair of hangers-on, delegates wearing union T-shirts or hockey jackets kept asking him to pose for photos, as if he were a rock star. A few minutes later, he was pacing behind the lectern at the front of the room, orchestrating a rather dull debate about the role of community chapters in Unifor’s future. It had been a long convention, with plenaries and concerts and appearances by high-profile figures such as Naomi Klein.

Trying to keep his flagging audience pumped, Dias jumped into the discussion with a swipe at an always-reliable adversary. “The media,” he said, “has been relentless with the formation of the new union. They’re saying organizing will be a problem.” He said Unifor will target young people, and offer them “justice and a future. Each and every one of our 300,000 members must be organizers. That’s how we’re going to move forward.”

As the session petered out, the delegates headed off toward City Hall for the annual Labour Day parade, which featured thousands of Unifor’s vivid red T-shirts and banners emblazoned with the optimistic slogan “A Union for Everyone.” Unifor, Dias told the crowd, “was determined to change the direction of the country.”

The showy Labour Day cheerleading seemed a world away from the Parkdale Tim Hortons where David Sanders of UNITE HERE had met with Rosa, the Richtree worker. It had taken several tries before he succeeded in getting her to open up.

“We work so hard,” she said, her frustration bubbling to the surface. “The managers are trying to abuse us. They shove us everywhere. We’re like furniture. That’s how we feel. They give us five-hour shifts. How could we survive? Myself, I’m really struggling. I’m a single mom.” After working at the restaurant for twenty years, though, she didn’t want to quit. “I want to fight for my rights. They’re making money. We’re the backbone of the company, but they treat us like garbage.”

Seeing his moment, Sanders began to lay out UNITE HERE’s plan to turn up the heat on the company, via a series of pop-up demonstrations that would run throughout the fall and into the Christmas shopping rush.

“This,” he said, “is fighting season. We want to draw attention. It will be fun!”

“For how long? ” Rosa wondered.

“Until we win.”

This appeared in the December 2013 issue.

John Lorinc
John Lorinc is a Toronto-based journalist and editor and the author of Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology, and the Pursuit of Urban Utopias, published this year.
Kelsey Heinrichs
Kelsey Heinrichs contributes frequently to the National Post, Wired, and The Walrus.