UNIFOR: Modernizing The Canadian Trade Union

UNIFOR: Modernizing The Canadian Trade Union

by Tyson Kelsall

Unifor is the newest private sector union in the country; fittingly, it formed this Labour Day and is the product of two major unions colliding. The Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworks Union of Canada (CEP) merged in order to, as Unifor’s BC Regional Council Chair, Andrea MacBride, put it, “make a better Canada.” Scott Doherty, Unifor’s elected Western Director, said the new coalition is not just a labour movement, but also a social movement. Doherty pointed out that it is no longer the 1940s in Canada, where unions could be winning major picket line battles for things such as  universal health care or fighting for the 40-hour workweek as unions did in that time, but that unions have to adjust to a global economy and re-invigorate themselves amongst their membership.

According to Doherty, the union is going to serve roughly 300, 000 people from coast-to-coast-to-coast, making it the biggest private sector union in the nation. However, it has room to grow, and is not only limited to the industries that the CAW and CEP used to represent. MacBride described a new approach Unifor is taking, which they are calling “community chapters,” and will make them more community-involved. Unifor will also begin reaching out to people who have jobs that do not fit within the traditional trade union framework, but who want to join together with like-minded workers. As MacBride said, “this is part of looking out for all working people” and that “people in a country like Canada shouldn’t have to work two to three part-time, minimum wage jobs just to scrape by.” Doherty used Fort MacMurray as an example: there, Unifor could build the structures and create a place for people to meet who are working in the oil sands and want to talk about the issues brought forth in such a fast growing industry. As the Western Director, Doherty is serving 70,000 people from Manitoba to British Columbia, which could easily grow if they continue to keep these doors open. Doherty says that, “in an optimal world we would have these in each community across the nation.”

Unifor is still working out their policies and stances on minimum wage across the country, as provinces each have unique situations. MacBride said that Unifor is also going to be challenging the difficulties of getting a job, as many students who have gone to university and received degrees are working below a ‘living wage,’ what she describes as an income “where you are not living the high life by any means, but where you can work one job and contribute to your community, assist your family and get a little more than just the basic necessities.” The living wage has become a hot topic as of late; in Vancouver it has been reported to be roughly $18.80 per hour (minimum wage is $10.25 per hour) by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. In the municipality of New Westminster, there is a policy that says the living wage is the minimum wage for all public service workers.

Unifor is also taking a stance on some human rights. As MacBride put it, “we have not made ourselves partisan, but we are absolutely against Stephen Harper’s policies towards working people of Canada – including minorities, women and students,” also stating that, “as trade unionists, we have a stance that women’s rights should be protected” and “the approach that Unifor is taking is to look at the world we live in and be representative of it [in our workforces].” She says that Harper’s government continues to “interfere with the collective bargaining process.” The federal Conservatives have passed six back-to-work legislations since coming into power in 2006.

Doherty added that they are not only taking progressive steps outside of Unifor, but also within, stating that the executive boards of CEP and CAW used to be extremely large and full of mostly males, now the executive board has shrunk, is elected, and is about 40% women.

Andrea MacBride ended our interview by speaking about student tuition and the foundation for what will end up being Unifor’s stances, saying that “we do support, as did CEP and CAW, support student union movements, particularly in Quebec – both unions were very supportive of the movements, and they quite frankly shutdown Quebec and started an election… the debt students come out of school with, only to work low-paying jobs is something that has to be considered.”