With a long history of improving and protecting the rights for all workers, the Canadian labour movement has experienced both a number of challenges and opportunities. The historically strong sectors of unionization, that included forestry, mining and manufacturing, has declined dramatically over the past 20 years. Being forced to adapt to significant changes in the workforce, the Canadian labour movement is under an increased pressure to be relevant and flexible in an ever-changing environment. For this reason, it becomes increasingly evident that the current labour movement in Canada is indeed in crisis. There have been several factors that have contributed to this situation. Globalization has led to an increase in the non-unionized workforce through greater international trade, more flexible work arrangements and the government adopting policies that support the profitability of corporations. Technological innovations have had a significant impact in the manufacturing and engineering workplaces. The traditional collective bargaining agreements must change in order to give the unions a say on how technology is used and the impact that it has on the workforce. Furthermore, the change in workforce demographics that includes an increase in remote workers, part-time and contract jobs along with the decline in commonly unionized jobs, there is no longer that same commitment of employers and workers to support a union.
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The political and economic impact of globalization has had a significant effect on the Canadian labour movement. The world has experienced substantial growth over the last several decades due to globalization. However, globalization has increased the non-unionized, part-time workforce and given employers more power over salary demands. Unionized manufacturing jobs have declined with free trade agreements and deregulated national controls. Canadian manufacturing companies could no longer compete on prices. The loss of union membership has resulted in less power at the bargaining table. In addition, as the labour movement has weakened, concessions on wages have been made in exchange for job security. A recent example of this is in the Ontario Auto industry where Unifor is fighting to save thousands of jobs at General Motors, who recently announced plans to close its Oshawa, Ontario assembly plant. This is part of General Motors global restructuring plan to see the company focus on autonomous and electric vehicles. The production is shifting to markets such as China, Mexico and India where product demand is increasing and labour costs are low (Jeffords, 2018). Corporations continue to look for countries with the lowest labour costs and then demand that the local governments reduce their domestic costs for them to stay. Employers are also using the threat of closure to lower wages, reduce staff and change the employee roles and responsibilities. In addition, governments have adopted policies to make labour more flexible in a global economy by making changes to employment law. In an increasingly competitive global economy, corporations have adopted similar kinds of production systems and flexible labour practices. These changes have enabled employers to change their relationship with employees and has resulted in an overall negative impact on unions.
The automation and advancement of technological change in the workplace is one of the greatest challenges facing the labour movement. While new technologies have significant promise, there is a fear from many that robots and artificial intelligence will replace humans. This will result in huge layoffs and greater inequality in the working class. New technologies will continue to benefit highly skilled workers with greater flexibility, creativity and problem-solving skills. However, low and medium skilled workers in manual type jobs will face greater pressures as automation will eliminate these roles. There is even concerns that highly skilled professionals such as doctors and programmers are at risk. It has been reported that “…the share of jobs at risk to being automated vary widely and can reach staggering numbers of over 80 per cent.” (Hong, 2017, p. 1). Canada’s younger (between 16 and 24) and older populations are the most likely to be impacted by automation. However, it has been said that “We don’t believe that all of these jobs will be lost. Many will be restructured, and new jobs will be created as the nature of occupations change due to the impact of technology and computerization.” (CBC, 2016). While unions have negotiated agreements over automation for many years in the auto industry, there is new software technology that enables workplace scheduling for peak and off-peak hours as well as providing data and analytics on employee performance. In October, Sobeys Inc. opened Canada’s first ‘smart’ store in Oakville, Ontario with shopping carts where the customer scans a code on the product and drops the item inside the cart (Boisvert, 2019). The fear is that if this pilot is successful, it will change the future shopping experience and be the beginning of more layoffs in the retail sector. As technologies get introduced in to the workplace, labour unions should be taking the initiative to find alternative employment for those workers at risk along with retraining and improving working conditions.
The Canadian labour movement has also been negatively impacted due to changes in demographics. The recession in the early 1980s had a significant impact on the traditional goods producing industries and blue-collar occupations where unions had strong representation. As a result, the union’s bargaining power to improve wages, benefits, working conditions and long-term employment security was impacted. With unionization rates declining, unions have been faced with a new workforce. The labour movement has discovered that this group of workers has different interests, more difficult to organize and have been utilizing policies and practices that are outdated to meet their concerns. “Almost 90 percent of the net employment creation since the 1950s has taken place in the service sector.” (Coates, 2014, p. 6). This has made unionization difficult because the service industry tends to have high turnover, high proportion of women where membership is generally low, part-time workers, professionals and younger workers. In addition, the demographics of the workplace is changing with millennials having different expectations than the baby boomers who are leaving the workforce because of retirement. Millennials have indicated that having one job for their entire life is not their goal and changing their job or career is something that they would most likely engage in doing. A recent report from the Broadbent Institute “…found that 52 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 20 and 30 believe work for their generation will be made up of a perpetual mix of contract positions interspersed with full-time work. In comparison the think tank found just 14 per cent of their parents worked in a situation like that.” (Lee, 2014). Millennials often want to have some control over their relationships in the workplace, they are less concerned about traditional benefits and because they are in jobs that are harder to organize, there is less union representation. Jerry Dias, the President of Unifor states that “Young people in precarious jobs typically have been non-unionized. They don’t see a union fighting for them, they see themselves as being left aside.” (Lee, 2014). When Jerry Dias was elected as President of Unifor, one of his campaign commitments was to youth outreach with a goal to generate more opportunities at the grassroots level and bringing the concerns of young workers directly to the union’s national executive (Lee, 2014).
The Canadian labour movement has a long history of improving workers safety, wages and overall everyday lives. However, in recent years, unions have become weaker as they have been faced with a workforce that has been changed due to economic, labour and public policy environments. The labour movement has not been able to adapt to these challenges and union membership has remained low. Unions continue to rely on their historical ways and have not modernized their strategies in order to attract new and younger members. The current labour movement in Canada is indeed in crisis.
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