The Path to Success for Organized Labour

Labour unions are at a critical time in history. Unions are working to engage the current membership and exploring new innovative communication strategies that are needed to reach the younger generation in a meaningful way. Gone are the days of the bulletin board as the primary sources of union news and updates. People are busy and it’s a challenge to draw the membership out to a meeting. It was not too long ago when local arenas were filled to capacity to hear the local union president address the membership. Email, text message, Twitter and Facebook are popular forms of communication in the fast-paced world of work, and the membership is demanding multiple communication platforms to access. Contrary to popular belief, union members are interested in their union; they simply don’t have the time to participate in the traditional model that is in place, the membership meeting.

Like many organizations, unions are in a time of change and transformation.  As stated by Littlemore (2013), union membership is “pretty close to what it was 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years ago.” (p. 1). Many factors affect the decline of union membership and according to Tattersall (2008), these factors include “international economic competition, anti-union legislation and a shift in local industries from unionized manufacturing to non-union services” (p. 416). Although union membership as a whole has remained constant, the numbers require further investigation. Littlemore (2013) confirms private sector union density has been on a constant decline. With a lens on the private sector unions, a more focused examination is required to understand the decline, what factors may be contributing to the drop in membership, as well as what unions can do to reverse this trend.

Download PDF: The Path to Success for Organized Labour

The Future of Labour

The labour movement in Canada has a long and proud history of success and positive community involvement. Throughout the years however, union membership levels across North America have been on a steady decline.  Many would argue the decline in the ranks of unions is attributed to stronger labour laws protecting workers, less interest by the young workers entering the workforce and a more transient workforce demanding flexibility and merit over seniority. These arguments, although attractive on the surface, are easily discredited with a minimal amount of research and thought.  Some would argue that legislation is in place to protect workers’ rights. However, the legislation traditionally provides basic minimums in employment.  Like any piece of legislation, the rights an employee enjoys and relies on can be taken away with the stroke of a pen. ‎Corporate lobbying has taken a toll on legislation designed to protect workers, leaving gaps and holes making the legislation toothless when enforcement is required. Unions are still needed to protect workers, and they are an important part of the future of labour. There are still many workers who work in less than ideal conditions. But like any other organization, unions need to change and adapt to the changing world.

Current Trends

Currently, fast food workers across the United States are engaging in a sort of wildcat strikes to demand a living wage of $15 per hour. These workers are subjected to minimal compensation rates, little to no benefits or pensions and unstructured and unreliable scheduling, all while reading about record corporate profits and CEO’s making anywhere from $7 million to $22 million a year. In the past, these workers normally would have organized and formed a union within their workplace in an effort to have a voice in their working conditions. However, they chose not to take that path. Not because they didn’t want to form a union, but because forming a union has become too cumbersome and formalized through legislation and litigation in the U.S. These workers decided not to take the traditional path of unionization to demand better working conditions, and instead they chose the grass roots path to withhold labour in return for better wages.

This sort of guerrilla tactic is impossible for the corporation to control, or even predict and anticipate. There is no organization behind the movement to sue or pressure, there are no court injunctions to be issued and no organizations funding or coordinating the action. In short, the anti-union legislation has done what it was drafted to do: frustrate union organizing activity to a standstill. However, this type of grass roots, guerrilla mobilization is one of the unintended consequences of anti-union legislation. As these movements become more active and start to become more structured, unions will assist and guide these newly formed “unions”, however, it will be up to the workers if they accept the assistance and support of organized labour.

How U.S. Anti-Union Legislation Affects Canada

Locally, there has been a movement to dismantle the Rand Formula in some jurisdictions in Canada. By removing the Rand Formula, members would no longer be required to pay union dues while still enjoying the benefits of union representation and the benefits of the collective agreement.  With the spread of “right-to–work” legislation being passed in a majority of states in the U.S., including the labour stronghold of Michigan, many pundits claim that to remain competitive similar laws should be adopted in Ontario. Typically, right-to-work states boast that low unionization rates encourage and entice corporations to relocate their facilities to that jurisdiction. Lafer and Allegretto (2011) stated, “right to work laws have not succeeded in boosting employment growth in the states that have adopted them.” (p. 2). This is simply a ploy to gain public support in an underhanded move to financially cripple unions and prevent them from providing representation to the membership.

Precarious Work and Legislative Challenges

Another issue plaguing todays’ workers is the increased use of agency workers or temps. Temporary workers, better known as agency workers, are becoming the trend and the norm in Canadian workplaces. Precarious jobs and low wages are not only a plague to the current workforce, but also to generations of young workers to come. The Globe and Mail reported that, “the number of temporary workers in Canada hit a record two million last year, according to Statistics Canada. This amounts to 13.6% of the workforce compared with 11.3% in 1997.” (Grant, 2011, para. 1).

When a workplace makes the decision to use agency workers to fill permanent vacancies, two outcomes can be expected. First, the agency workers usually have a lower rate of pay and normally have no benefit coverage. Currently, there are no laws in place that prevent an employer from treating an agency worker differently than a regular employee. The Employment Standards Act offers little protection to these workers.

Second, unions struggle with organizing workplaces that are virtually employee-less but have a workforce comprised of workers from multiple temp agencies. These workers do not oppose union certification, on the contrary however, the complex system of agencies in the workplace makes certification nearly impossible. If a worker complains publically, termination is likely the result. At least one employer is facing legal action for firing an agency worker for expressing his unfortunate employment circumstances. Angel Reyes filed a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal after he was terminated for speaking out. Through a workers action center, Angel hopes to bring a voice to agency workers in Ontario (Workers Action Centre, 2015) and stated, “I hope that through this lawsuit United Staffing Services and Canada Fibres will finally be punished for the way they treat workers.”(para. 2).  Ironically, in an interview with the Toronto Star (Mojtehedzadeh, 2015) Angel stated, “the biggest issue is the lack of respect and dignity in (temporary) work. Nobody is seeing them for who they are and the work that they’re doing. They are completely invisible.”(para. 5). This type of precarious employment combined with an unstable relationship with the employer puts a chill on union organizing before it even begins.

Political Action

Labour unions are facing a challenging time. Doorey (2013) stated, “polls of workers in Canada and the U.S. demonstrate clearly that many, many more workers would like to be unionized than actually are.” (para. 9). However, despite the fact that workers are increasingly interested in forming a union in their workplace, this is becoming more difficult to achieve. As illustrated with the U.S. fast food employees, workers are resorting to more non-traditional approaches such as self-organizing and withholding labour. Workers are accessing worker action centers for assistance with employment related issues, a job that until recently unions held. Unions have adapted to change over the years and today’s problems will be met with creative solutions. One thing is clear now more than ever – unions must be involved in politics to ensure legislation is current and effective. It has become clear that labour unions are one of the last structured pillars supporting fairness and equality in the workplace. The task at hand is to ensure fences are not erected around the pillars that prevent workers from accessing union representation.

Grass Roots: A Renewed Vision

Internally, unions are returning to their roots.  Community Action Networks (CAN) are a renewed vision of solidarity and community activism. They are responsible for raising the profile of labour unions within our communities. ‎The CANs attend community events to profile the union and the work it does through collective bargaining and organizing. They are also responsible for establishing a network that labour and community activists can access. By bridging this gap, labour and community groups can consolidate their efforts to become more effective and efficient in their approach to influence change. This is important because change motivates and encourages participation and CANs are effective at building strong and sustainable relationships that produce results.

The labour movement’s success and rapid growth, that occurred in the 1930’s when labour unions were mobilizing in record numbers, offered hope, vision and a better way through collective bargaining and collective action.

Today, labour unions need to look at mobilizing their current membership, re-engaging with their existing members, and building the sense of community that working people are looking for. The past holds the key to the future success of the labour movement. It is up to the current leadership and the future leadership of the labour movement to go back to the future, build on past successes and create opportunity for innovative ideas to grow and evolve. Social media and ‘hacktavisim’ should not be a substitute for direct face-to-face contact with the members. As seen in the recent provincial and federal elections, labour unions are mobilizing their membership to exercise their collective voice in support of worker friendly legislation and forming lines at the ballot box to force change that better represents workers interests. Workers are realizing that voting for candidates that push an agenda that does not meet the needs of the working class, is in essence voting against their own interests. Member mobilization is the first step to reengaging the membership and reinvigorating the membership.

About the Author

Derik McArthur

Derik McArthur began his career with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) after graduation from Confederation College with dual diplomas in Human Resources and Human Resources Management.  In 2005, he was elected as president, RWDSU Canada, and as RWDSU International Vice-President/Canadian director. The following year, he was elected to international Vice-President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) – a union that represents 1.4 million members in North America. In 2012, Derik lead RWDSU Canada, the Northern Joint Council and the 11 RWDSU locals in a merger with UFCW local 175 & 633 creating UFCW’s largest local union in North America, boasting a membership of over 74,000 members. Derik is now a director with UFCW local 175 & 633 based in Mississauga, Ontario.  Derik holds a BA in Justice Studies and an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Royal Roads University. In his spare time Derik is an active member of the Canadian Forces Army reserve.


Aubrey, A. (2014). Fast-Food CEOs Earn Supersize Salaries; Workers Earn Small Potatoes. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from

Doorey, D. (2013). Law of work. Don’t confuse union density with the demand for unionization. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from

Grant, T. (2013). Canada’s shift to a nation of temporary workers. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from

Lafer, G. & Allegretto, S. (2011). Does ‘right to work’ create jobs. Answers from Oklahoma. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from

Mojtehedzadeh, S. (2015, May 10). Ontario employers cashing in on temporary workers.  The Toronto Star. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from

Workers Action Centre. (2015, September 18). Former temp agency worker files lawsuit after being fired for speaking out. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from

Lifelong Learning: Advocating Professional Development

Lifelong learning is a catchphrase often used by many, but a concept practiced by few. As professionals look to not only increase their skill sets, but also to keep up with trends within their industry, it is increasingly important to maintain a high level of competence by continuing to learn. In many fields, such as human resources, professional organizations have been established to maintain a minimum standard for practitioners to achieve to ensure that the profession is held to a measurable level of competence. The CHRP is one example of a professional designation in Canada.

It is human nature to always question and seek knowledge. Most of our conversations are the sharing of or the request for information. We continually seek to expand our knowledge base and learn more about what interests us. As practitioners, we know all too well that at the end of any course we take or seminar we attend, our own theories start to develop and the quest for additional knowledge grows. This is why we must embrace learning and encourage it both professionally in our various workplaces, as well as personally, and apply it to our outside interests. Professional development programs and workplace learning strategies are ways in which employees can ensure that they continue to expand their knowledge and skills, thereby contributing to their lifelong learning. In this article, I discuss the benefits of professional development from an employer and employee perspective.

Why employees benefit from professional development

For the employee, professional development programs in the workplace offer more that just a simple perk to their employment. Psychologically, this type of learning lets the employees know that they are all there for a reason and that their worth to the organization goes beyond their current skill sets. In turn, employees recognize that their organization is willing to invest in them to ensure that they are the most competent and successful members they can be. This leads to higher morale and, in theory, results in higher productivity.

Professional development helps to retain employees

Employers can never be naive and think that employees are theirs forever and that none of them would ever think of “jumping ship” to work for a competitor. Nor can employers develop their training, learning, and development plans around this type of thinking. If employees are not satisfied with their role within the organization, they will leave. I think that organizations that encourage lifelong learning attract ambitious, self-motivated employees. For example, as individuals attend various training programs and “brag” about what their employer is doing to better equip them in their careers, word will spread, and the organization’s learning programs will become known by prospective candidates.

Investing in professional development facilitates employee loyalty

Compensation is a factor in attracting employees, but we are foolish to think that it is the governing factor. As employees, we like to have a nice pay cheque every week but we also like to have our employers value what we do. As employees move through professional development programs, they often see the value behind the courses and a greater link with the organization is established. The organization becomes more than just a place of work; it enables knowledge acquisition and freethinking. This weighs heavily on employees when faced with an alternate job offer. In fact, this could be the factor that retains an employee, regardless of the improved monetary package offered. Providing opportunities for personal and professional growth creates loyalty to the employer and can contribute to building a more stable and competent workforce.

Employee loyalty contributes to workforce capacity

In addition, employee loyalty may enhance capacity within the workforce. As employees’ fundamental skill sets are increased, additional duties are assumed, and more complex tasks are picked up in-house instead of relying on external assistance. Employees start to take on roles as resident subject matter experts and guide the organization through various projects. Whether it is organization design or change management, mediation or negotiation, labour relations or strategic grievance handling, proper training improves the overall effectiveness of the team. From an employer’s perspective, increased capacity and productivity result in fewer expenses incurred. The return on investment in employees’ professional development soon becomes evident.

It is important to note that learning must be a meaningful experience. Thus, both the employer and the employee must be active participants in the programming and both parties must determine how they can benefit from each other. The employee must recognize how the new skills that are acquired can be put to practical use within the organization. Similarly, the employer must play an active role in guiding employees’ learning and ensuring that knowledge transfers to the workplace.

Employers should invest in developing learning plans

As employers or decision makers, establishing a professional development or learning plan for each employee or each department is a time consuming task. It requires needs assessments, an inventory of current skills and training, and then builds on those. Duplicating courses and random workshops that do not necessarily fit within the professional development plan should be avoided. Having all employees in the same office attend the exact same courses is not a benefit to the employer or the employee.

Instead, rounding out the staff with programs that will interest them, can be applied in their work, and are purposeful is more in tune with an effective learning strategy that will benefit everyone. It’s important to remember that encouraging employee development through workplace learning benefits both the organization and the individual. It is not a form of praise or reprimand (i.e., not allowing participation as discipline), rather it should be viewed as a part of the employment package.

Lifelong learning benefits the most competent and dedicated team members

In some cases, your star employee will have the practical experience required for the job or role they are in, but lack formal credentials or training. Professional development programs offer that employee an opportunity to demonstrate and share their knowledge and skill sets with others through collaborative learning environments. This reinforces to the employee that their skill sets are on par with their peers, and gives the credentials that document abilities. In some cases, this confirmation is just enough of a boost in the member’s confidence level to move them to a higher capacity within the organization. Learning and affirming skills usually lead to the quest for more knowledge.

Making learning a priority

As employers attempt to attract the most qualified and talented employees to join their team, it is important to look within their own organization and find the hidden talent. Most employers do not have an inventory of what courses, programs, or seminars in which their staff members have engaged. In my view, creating a record of employee learning is essential. Failure to do so results in lost resources and may signal to the employee that their learning has no value to the organization. Utilization of a member’s newly acquired skill sets is motivating and provides the member with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Special projects assigned based on these new skills gives employees a feeling of community and creates a bond between them and the organization. Retention of skilled staff is an obvious desire for any organization. Professional development programs that promote lifelong learning should be viewed as tools for employee retention and to attract high caliber employees.

As a firm believer and participant in lifelong learning, it has been my experience that regardless of the course of study, there are always areas that can be applied to your workplace. From small lessons learned, to new processes to examine a problem. Lifelong learning constantly challenges us to adapt and explore outside of our comfort zone and apply our new skills in our workplace. Providing employees with professional development opportunities and encouraging lifelong learning has motivated and driven staff within my organization to excel and take on more complex projects and duties. This allows supervisors and management to pursue other organizational needs and challenges, knowing that their staff is better equipped to handle their day-to-day duties.

About the Author

Derik McArthurDerik McArthur began his career with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) after graduation from Confederation College with dual diplomas in Human Resources and Human Resources Management. Prior to attending college, he was an active member of the Canadian Forces Army Reserve working as a full-time infantry soldier.

His professional career began as an organizer with the union that included work throughout Canada and the United States. He progressed through the organization and was reassigned to member service where his responsibilities focused on grievance settlements and collective bargaining. In 2005, he was elected as president, RWDSU Canada, and as RWDSU International vice-president/Canadian director. The following year, he was elected to international vice-president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union – a union that represents 1.4 million members in North America. Most recently, Derik facilitated the merger of 11 local unions in Ontario into UFCW local 175. The amalgamated locals have formed the largest UFCW local union in North America with over 70,000 members.

In addition to his positions in the union, Derik sits on the Employment Insurance Board of Referees, and hears appeals from EI applicants that have been denied Employment Insurance benefits.

Derik is active in the community and is a founder of the Home for a Hero Project – an initiative that raised over $300,000 for a triple-amputee Sudbury soldier coming out of Afghanistan. He also sits on the Board of Directors for the Sudbury and District Food Bank.

Outside his professional interests, he enjoys spending time with his wife and children and continues to enjoy working as an army reservist and infantry soldier with the 2nd Battalion Irish Regiment of Canada.

Derik holds a BA in Justice Studies from Royal Roads University and has completed his Organization Development, Labour Relations, and Organizational Capacity Certificates from Queen’s IRC and currently sits on the IRC Advisory Board. Derik is a coach at the IRC’s Labour Relations Foundations program.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Learn more about the collection, use and disclosure of personal information at Queen’s University.