The Path to Success for Organized Labour

The Path to Success for Organized LabourLabour 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.

The Future of Labour

The Future of LabourThe 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 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.  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

Queen’s IRC: A Diamond Celebration

On October 12, 2012, the IRC commemorated a diamond milestone: 75 years of industrial relations at Queen’s University. Among the distinguished guests at the celebratory event were Queen’s University Principal, Daniel Woolf, and former IRC Directors, Carol Beatty and Don Carter. In addition, several Queen’s faculty members, IRC alumni, facilitators, and staff were also in attendance. The afternoon provided an opportunity to reflect on the IRC’s history, its accomplishments, and the many individuals and organizations that have been instrumental in shaping the Centre’s journey.

IRC Director, Paul Juniper, began his talk by acknowledging the contributions of his team: “We wouldn’t have had 75 years of achievements without an excellent staff.” He also discussed the IRC’s national presence: “I’m proud to say that last year we were able to offer programs in Victoria, Calgary, Banff, Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Kingston, and St. John’s, Newfoundland. The issue we are facing right now is not one of demand, but one of capacity.”

Principal Daniel Woolf congratulated the IRC on its success. “I’m particularly thrilled with the fact that theory and practice have come together so well at the Centre,” he commented. Referring to the IRC as a “Queen’s University jewel,” Principal Woolf said: “I am delighted that the Centre has grown and prospered under its Directors and has become not only a Kingston feature but a national institution.”

According to Principal Woolf, “the IRC’s next 75 years are going to be even better.” Indeed, the IRC’s newly launched Advanced Human Resources Certificate and programs in Succession Planning, Strategic Grievance Handling, and Managing Unionized Environments are examples of the exciting changes underway at the Centre, as it continues to target the professional development needs of human resources, labour relations, and organizational development practitioners across Canada.

>>View the Video from our celebratory event

>>Download our Commemorative History of the past 75 years.

Celebrating 75 Years of Excellence

In 1937, Queen’s University formed the Industrial Relations Section. Since then, the Section has evolved to include two academic programs, a Master of Industrial Relations (MIR) and a Professional Master of Industrial Relations (PMIR), and the practitioner-focused Industrial Relations Centre (IRC).

The IRC has become a leading provider of premium professional development programs in labour relations and human resources. IRC programs are designed for practitioners, delivered by subject matter experts, and grounded in adult learning principles. The experiential learning opportunities allow participants to develop high-level skills and acquire knowledge that translates to the workplace.

The quest for excellence has been a driving force for the IRC’s successes over the years. IRC Director, Paul Juniper, joined the Centre in 2006. Under his direction, the IRC continues to raise the bar on program service delivery. In addition to increasing the number of programs offered, the IRC now holds its programs across Canada as well as in Kingston.

This October, IRC staff will be reflecting on the Centre’s history and celebrating this diamond milestone. We invite you to join us on October 12 at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

Dr. W. Donald Wood

Dr. W. Donald Wood, Director of the Industrial Relations Centre (1960-1985) and first Director of the School of Industrial Relations (1983-1985).


A group photo from the Industrial Relations Conference for Trade Union Staff Personnel, held May 11-12, 1964, at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Far right: Dr. W. Donald Wood, Director of the Industrial Relations Centre (1960-1985) and first Director of the School of Industrial Relations (1983-1985).

A group photo from the Industrial Relations Conference for Trade Union Staff Personnel, held May 11-12, 1964, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Far right: Dr. W. Donald Wood, Director of the Industrial Relations Centre (1960-1985) and first Director of the School of Industrial Relations (1983-1985).

IR Scene is All Shook Up

Rob Hickey, a facilitator in the Queen’s Master’s of Industrial Relations program, says restructuring is the big issue of 2007 for both labour and management. Below, Rob – who worked as an organizer for the Teamsters for a decade in the United States, and earned his MA and PhD from Cornell University’s School of Industrial Relations and Labour Relations Studies – discusses IR issues, and what he’d most like to see happen in IR in the year ahead.

What are the most crucial labour-management issues for 2007?

Key issues facing labour and management over the next year continue to revolve around the process of economic restructuring. The recent announcements of layoffs by Chrysler, preceded by Ford, the ripple effect that the Big Three auto sector has on parts suppliers – that type of restructuring is certainly impacting the field of IR and labour unions, the Canadian Autoworkers in particular.

This also plays into other forms of restructuring at the level of the workplace. Take the current CN strike: one dimension is a wage dispute, but the other is restructuring of work processes, or the drive for flexibility on the part of management.

I continue to see the issue of restructuring, both on the broader, industrial level and on the micro, workplace level as being the key challenge facing management and labour in the coming year.

What are the top priorities for management?

Management’s priorities are consistent with the term ‘flexibility’, and it creates clear tensions with unions over questions of job security, and economic security in general.

I think flexibility relates to both numeric and functional flexibility; functional flexibility as seen in the CN dispute and numeric flexibility based on the employers’ ability to outsource, contract out, to rationalize and downsize their workforce. We saw this at Chrysler, among the Big Three, and at a host of companies including Eastman Kodak and Nortel.

You see companies trying to adapt their operations to the changing global economic environment, and that includes in some cases shifting production from North America to Mexico, or low-cost offshore locations in the Far East. Or it includes what I call “in sourcing” – bringing non-employee contractors into a local workplace. So the work may still be done locally, but no longer by core employees of a particular employer. These forms of flexibility continue to be attractive to employers as part of overall cost containment or cost reduction strategy.

It’s not simply a question of adapting to current economic pressures: it’s also about restructuring the work process, and creating different structures in the employment relationship.

What are the top priorities for labour?

Pressures from economic restructuring are increasing the profile of economic and social security concerns. So job security and also broader social security remain a serious focus of labour’s agenda. I include social security because while the loss of manufacturing jobs is one element, it also contributes to concerns about a crisis in the provision of public services and the quality of the health care system – which the Canadian labour movement is deeply concerned about.

Wages will of course not disappear from labour’s concerns, and that will continue to ebb and flow. Statscan has tracked contractual wage increases at slightly above the rate of inflation, and I don’t see that changing significantly in the near term. Labour unions do not want to see their members’ purchasing power decline.

Related to the first point on economic restructuring, we see rapid changes taking place in ownership structures through mergers and acquisitions. Take Novelis here in Kingston – an India-based firm, Hindalco, just made one of largest buyout offers in the industry’s history to purchase this aluminium manufacturing company. This type of global capital restructuring creates concern for unions but also opportunities that may bring much needed capital investment to operations that have historically been efficient, productive, and profitable, but lack money to recapitalize.

So restructuring in this case is not just about job protection and layoff concerns, but also about investment flows, capital improvements, and commitment to innovative technology to local operations.

A recent Conference Board IR report said management/labour interests are converging, and identified the “war for talent as “the tie that binds.” Do you agree?

I was left unconvinced that pressures for convergence overcome the inherent tensions in the drive for flexibility. Management’s drive for flexibility may indeed trump the ability of the parties to cooperate on issues of retention and skills, and I think we are seeing that. One of the commentators in the report was from CN, and she was prescient in talking about types of flexibility changes they were seeking in their contract negotiations, claiming that current contractual work-rules were still based upon operations using steam locomotives. I’d venture there is some hyperbole involved in that statement, but I do think it accurately reflects what the real tensions are and that there will continue to be serious areas of dispute in terms of restructuring at the workplace level.

There are concerns on the union’s part about safety and economic and social security; and on the employers’ part about winning greater flexibility and efficiency gains. It is not enough to say that the changes in the work rules are merely about modernizing in the current economic environment – one also has to recognize the serious concerns unions have about the health and safety impacts of work rule changes and the challenges of maintaining health and safety standards with a significantly reduced workforce.

Employers call it flexibility when one person can do three jobs; unions call it a safety hazard. So how the parties resolve that fundamental dispute is a real challenge, and will not be overshadowed by changes in the demographic makeup of the Canadian workforce. That’s just part of the background context for what will remain in the foreground of challenges facing labour and management in the global economy.

Do you think the changing demographics will promote grassroots labour-management partnerships, as predicted in the report?

One of the challenges even in successful partnerships between labour and management is moving the partnership down to the shop floor. There may be great relationships among top negotiators and top officers of the two organizations, but frontline supervisors and rank-and-file workers still see traditional disputes. So how you move the culture of partnership down to a grassroots level? I think that’s a real challenge to the long-term maintenance of partnership agreements.

To the extent there are new opportunities, I don’t know that they will stem strictly from changes in the demographic makeup of the Canadian workforce. I think the real challenge of partnership is to build it throughout organizations, and not just on the top tiers.

Each organization has its own approach to more grassroots engagement. So the extent to which labour and labour leaders have been able to develop more inclusion in terms of membership participation, democracy and communications is one element of that. At the same time management has developed more team-oriented approaches, flatter structures, and broader engagement with front-line employees.

I’d say both trends are happening, but I’m not convinced they are always happening in concert with one another – meaning sometimes they are vying for the hearts and minds of members more than moving partnership agreements deeper into the culture of the organization.

What other developments can we expect to see in IR this year, and beyond?

In 2007 on the collective bargaining front a number of important contracts are coming open. In the public sector, health services in Ontario and Alberta will involve about 60,000 workers. In the federal sector there are contracts involving Quebec public workers particularly in transit in Montreal. So certainly the public sector remains a rich area for labour-management relations, partly as it is so highly unionized, and partly because it does set the tone for labour-management negotiations across a spectrum of industries.

Also the pace of restructuring, both on an industrial scale and workplace scale, will continue to be an area to pay attention to. Whether we continue to see contraction of the unionized auto sector or not we will certainly see the ripple effects as Chrysler contracts by 2,000 jobs in Windsor, and all the jobs that feed into those assembly operations are affected. How unions and managers negotiate those changes and help the workforce adjust will be critical in the coming year.

What development would you most like to see in IR this year?

I’d like to see the parties have an ability to take a step back and think about not just how they deal with restructuring on an individual basis, but how Canada manages the restructuring process on a nationwide basis. So to consider it both in terms of changes on an industry level, and in terms of changes in geographic flows and demographic flows.

There’s not currently a good forum for this interchange, at least directly between organizations of labour and organizations of management. A tripartite forum could exist where you have federal/provincial ministers of labour, along with representative of the Canadian Labour Congress, and Canadian employer associations. I think would be a tremendous step forward, helping parties navigate the restructuring process.

I don’t see it happening. But if I had a wish-list, I would really like to see a forum for a broader-based discussion on how we handle restructuring on a national basis and all the way down to the workplace level.

Latest on Dispute Resolution

On November 2 to 3, 2001, scholars, unionists, employee relations professionals, dispute resolution practitioners, and representatives from industry and government attended a special symposium on the State of the Art and Practice in Dispute Resolution. The symposium was held to pay tribute to the late Dr. Bryan M. Downie, an outstanding scholar and practitioner in the field of dispute resolution and industrial relations. The purpose of the symposium was to bridge theory and practice, contribute to a greater understanding of current approaches used in dispute resolution, and provide participants with an effective learning environment in which they could share knowledge and experiences. The event was jointly developed and sponsored by representatives from academia, business, and labour and supported with funding by the Labour-Management Partnerships Program.

Downie Symposium Proceedings excerpt

Discussions during the symposium revealed that employers, unions, academics, and human resource management/industrial relations practitioners recognize the need to improve relationships, engage in joint problem-solving, seek interest-based solutions, and share new research and practices in the field of dispute resolution. There was general agreement on the importance of building and maintaining positive relationships, not only in the workplace but also in other areas of our lives, such as the home, the community, and the world. The approaches that are taken to deal with problems or to resolve disputes will depend on the past and current relationships between the parties and the future prospects for those relationships.

  • Participants learned about four important characteristics of a positive or peaceful working relationship. In a positive relationship, people must have the opportunity to develop their potential, but not at the expense of others. The relationship needs to be characterized by both perceived and actual justice, and there must be fair treatment. There has to be respect for the person, and, as one discussant observed, respect for the democracy of the parties. Finally, the relationship has to be moving toward a condition of trust where each party is looking out for the interests and needs of the other. In looking for a positive working relationship, there are three important areas to consider: a substantive and sustainable outcome, a fair and reasonable procedure, and a psychological satisfaction of interests.
  • The presentations and discussions also brought forth several approaches and strategies for building better relationships and resolving disputes. In summary, the following points are worth reiterating:
  • People need to be able to discuss and work on areas of mutual concern, talk about past history, tell their stories, and develop a common vision for positive working relationships.
  • Communication needs to be genuine, open, transparent, and ongoing. Building support among the stakeholders is important.
  • Framing and reframing the issues or problems can determine the parties’ real interests.
  • Framing and reframing issues within the interest of the constituents can help to build consensus and mobilize support.
  • In labour-management relationships, it is important to recognize the democratic-political nature of unions when trying to build consensus.
  • Collaboration may require broad outside support, including a supportive political system.
  • There may be a need to develop new skills or change existing procedures, processes, and structures.
  • It is important to promote early and accurate exchange of information.
  • Acceptable standards and criteria for evaluating options need to be established.
  • It will help to generate multiple options. Procedures should be established to deal with future conflict.
  • If a party is using power in a relationship, the power has to be used in a respectful way; it has to be congruent with long-term objectives and promote the kind of relationship that is being sought.
  • Cooperation requires some sharing of power.
  • An initial failure to develop a collaborative relationship can lay the groundwork for future relationship-building.
  • Workplace issues need to be dealt with one problem at a time.
  • There is a role for third party assistance in developing collaborative relationships.
  • Mediation can positively change the culture of labour relations disputes and collective bargaining relationships by overcoming strategic, structural, and cognitive barriers, building trust and empathy, identifying the parties’ true interests, maximizing the opportunities to find common ground, helping the parties to problem-solve, involving the parties, improving communication, managing the needed cooperation, keeping a dialogue going, giving the parties ownership over the end result, and providing more enduring holistic solutions not always available to the law.
  • Investments in human resources help to build good relationships.
  • Unions should be clear in their objectives and accountable.

Transforming Workplaces

While Robert McKersie was visiting the Queen’s University School of Industrial Relations and the Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre to give the annual Don Wood Lecture in Industrial Relations, Mary Lou Coates took the opportunity to talk with Robert about his views and theories on the future of industrial relations and human resource management. Robert McKersie is a Professor in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he holds the Society of Sloan Fellows Professorship.

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