Young Workers and the Union Movement in Canada

HR Reporter roundtable - Peter Edwards, Bill Murnighan, Elaine Newman and Anna Goldfinch
Labour Relations

Many young workers don’t feel connected to the labour movement. They see it as a relic from previous generations, something that may have helped their parents but isn’t helping them, and something that might even be preventing them from obtaining good jobs.  So what can unions do to win over young workers?

This question was discussed at a recent roundtable discussion on the future of unions in the private sector hosted by the Canadian HR Reporter, and sponsored by Queen’s IRC.

Todd Humber, the Canadian HR Reporter’s managing editor, moderated the roundtable discussion. He asked panelists how unions are perceived by the youth, and what unions will need to do to win over the hearts and minds of young workers.

Anna Goldfinch, the national executive representative for the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario, represents 300,000 students in the province of Ontario.  She said that what they are seeing is a job market that’s leaving young people behind.

“The youth unemployment rate is double that of the adult unemployment rate here in the province and we’re seeing a rise in precarious work and underemployment for youth.”

“We’re drowning in debt, because we can’t find jobs, and the jobs that we can find are non-unionized.”

Elaine Newman, an arbitrator and mediator, and instructor for Queen’s IRC, acknowledges the issue of youth underemployment. “They are out of school, with student debt, with nothing but energy and ambition, and they are shut out.”

“As unions reinvent themselves and re-examine the fundamental guiding historic principles like seniority, occasionally someone gets up the nerve to say, is seniority working now that we have this valuable resource that we can’t employ?”

Newman said the value of seniority as a guiding principle is eroded when the young people who can’t get into the system are the sons and daughters of a union’s most senior members.  “All of the sudden the conversation changes and shifts a little bit.  There’s much less conversation about selling out the older people in favor of the younger people, when it’s actually their own children who they’re anxious to see employed.”

Bill Murnighan, the director of Unifor’s research department, says that there’s all sorts of issues in front of the labour market and Canadian workers, including job creation and seniority.

“Seniority and other systems work wonderfully when you have a growing economy.  It’s very simple for people at the bottom to feel that they’re on a ladder that’s moving up.  You have decent pensions, people retire, they go out, and the machinery works.”

However, when you have a stalled or weak economy, these things become more problematic, Murnighan said. But that hasn’t stopped Unifor from trying to recruit more young people.

“We say, let’s keep a decent pension so that people can retire, so there’s actual job creation.  We also try to create employment by getting investment in our facilities.”

Unifor, which represents about 300,000 employees across 20 sectors, is also targeting workplaces with precarious jobs. “One other thing we see is a growing trend around precarious workers and two-tier work,” said Murnighan. “We will not embrace that – the idea that, you can work for $27 dollars an hour and the person beside you will work for $12, and that will be forever more.”

Murnighan said while Unifor wants to create opportunities for youth, they won’t do it by selling out with two-tier work.

What can unions do to attract young workers?

Young workers don’t see themselves fitting into union culture because it doesn’t reflect the lifestyle and the work that they participate in, Goldfinch commented.

“Messaging that comes from unions like ‘the folks that brought you the weekend’ is incredibly effective for those who have weekends. Increasingly, young people don’t actually have weekends – their weekends might be a Monday and every second Thursday,” said Goldfinch.

“They see unions as organizations that represented people like their parents, people who were in Monday to Friday 9 to 5 type of employment, and that’s not for them.

“I think if unions are going to make themselves relevant to youth and to students, they need to start communicating that they are applicable in any work force. The benefits that our parents enjoyed when they were working in a unionized environment are available to young people.”  She said that unions will reflect the priorities of young people as more youth start to participate in them.

Goldfinch said that this very educated, but indebted generation, is in trouble. “I think we need to widen in the conversation to, why are youth and students in precarious jobs? Why aren’t they starting businesses more? Why aren’t they finding jobs in their field or at least good entry-level jobs that have on-the-job training where companies are investing in them as employees? We don’t see that happening.”

Ted Mallett, Vice-President and Chief Economist for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said a better future for young workers will come from being entrepreneurial and self-reliant.

He said they see lots of students starting businesses and hitting the ground running. “That’s a positive thing. The Youth Business Foundation is strong and vibrant. It’s creating this kind of mentorship in the universities that has been very positive. The idea that young people are only starting their own firms because they can’t find a job for a big unionized company, that’s not true at all.”

“The rule of thumb is that for every one person that starts a business because they find no other options, there were two or three others who started businesses because they have the confidence to do something,” said Mallett.

“Even with the decline in private sector unions we’ve seen an increase in the standard of living. There have been bumps and scrapes along the way because of the business cycle, but on balance we’re seeing a much stronger self-reliant economy than we’ve ever seen before in Canada.”

Jamie Knight, a partner at labour and employment law firm Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti in Toronto, said we need to work towards a cooperative workforce. He said there’s a need to discuss and reexamine the defined benefit pensions, which are the cornerstone of the trade union movement.  And, he suggested that there’s alternatives to the two-tier system, which impact young workers the most.

“There’s graduated wage systems where there’s an expanded wage grid, where it may take you many, many years to catch up, but there’s eventually a catch up.  That’s quite different from, as Bill described it, a forever two-tier system.”

The outlook for young workers

Anna Goldfinch paints a grim picture of life for young workers. “Tuition fees have rapidly outpaced everything including inflation, food, rent, transportation. Debt is skyrocketing – we’ve hit 19 billion dollars of just federal student loans in this country.”

She said it’s taking longer for students to get jobs, and even longer to get good jobs. “Everything in our lives is being prolonged. It’s harder to get the first job, it’s harder to then get the second job, and it’s harder to start a career. You’re getting your house and your mortgage and starting your family later. We’re seeing lives prolonged, lives put on pause because we haven’t figured out how to invest in youth like we used to. We haven’t figured out how to include them, whether it be by providing them with education, investing in their skills and training, both in the public sector and the private sector.”

But Peter Edwards, Vice-President of human resources and labour relations for Canadian Pacific, and a speaker with Queen’s IRC, disagrees.  He said that the issues that today’s youth are facing are very similar to the youth of previous generations.

“When I graduated, it was hard to get a job, and the first job is the hardest.  And then I disappeared into a vacuum for about five years, and then employers everywhere discovered us and wanted us.”

“Were there hard times before for youth unemployment? Yes. And there will be again.”

He reassured the youth that the delayed onset of getting to those stages of having a home, a mortgage, and a family – they will all come.

“We’re going to have all these challenges and all these problems, and the path forward will always be unclear. I think that everybody’s got a little bit of the solution, but there is no monolithic solution or problem.”

Edwards said it’s all about how we adapt, and speed with which we adapt to the changes. “I think society now asks us to adapt faster, whether or not we want that, we’re not given that choice anymore.”

Watch the Canadian HR Reporter’s full 16-minute video on Youth and the union movement in Canada:

Read our first article from the Canadian HR Reporter Roundtable on the future of unions in the private sector:
The Future of Unions in Canada’s Private Sector: How Can Unions Overcome their PR Problem?

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