After decades of declining membership, unions appear to be having a moment in North America.
Over the decades, the number of Canadian workers who belong to unions has declined. In 1981, 38 percent of the country’s workers were unionized, according to a recent study by the Angus Reid Institute. Last year, only 29 per cent of Canadian workers belonged to a union.
“Strikes have been virtually nonexistent for most of the last 30 years,” said Barry Eidlin, a labor expert who studies social movements at McGill University. “Those more collective solutions to people’s problems at work just haven’t been as high on the agenda.”
But from the Canadian federal workers strike to Hollywood actors and writers to British Columbia dockworkers (not to mention TV Ontario announcers, Saint John, N.B., municipal workers, and Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries employees) ), it is not surprising that this has been called the “summer of strikes“.
Experts say unions are being more aggressive at a time when their popular support is high.
“Two big developments in recent years were the election of new leadership in the Teamsters Union, which is one of the largest unions in North America,” Eidlin said. “And then, most recently, earlier this year, the election of reformers in the United Automobile Workers Union.”
A hard line
Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers, has taken a hard line in negotiations with the big three auto companies: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, owner of Jeep and Chrysler.
Fain has been outspoken about his union’s demands, advocating for a 40 percent increase in wages, a four-day workweek and getting paid five days, better benefits for retirees and more.
“There has been an unprecedented amount of transparency in the direction of new leadership within the UAW,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor economist at UC Berkeley.
“The new leaders have been very combative in terms of how they presented their demands to the Detroit automakers, but they are not manufacturing this discontent: they are channeling it.”
They are holding rotating strikes, in which workers go on strike at different plants at different times. It is a rarely used tactic, designed to inflict chaos on companies while allowing the union to extend the strike as long as necessary.
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“This will increase the power of UAW negotiators by keeping the company off balance,” Shaiken said.
Fain’s approach comes at a time when perceptions of unions in North America remain strong and the number of job actions is on the rise.
There have been almost 500 work stoppages across Canada since 2021, according to Statistics Canada. As a result, more than five million work days have been lost, the most in a three-year period from 2003 to 2005.
Two-thirds of Americans approve of unions, poll finds
In the USA Gallup poll Last month he suggested the unions’ approval rating was 67 per cent. And while that figure is a few percentage points lower than the previous year’s 71 percent (the highest since 1965), it is still above the long-term average of 62 percent.
A lot of that has to do with what they’re fighting for, Eidlin said.
Eidlin points to inflation, wage stagnation, growing inequality, erosion of benefits, too many or too few hours, erosion of job security and looming concerns about automation or technological change, such as artificial intelligence, as reasons of the increase in labor movements.
“These are all trends that have been affecting Canadian workers for decades,” he said.
Add to that a tight labor market and conditions are ripe for strike activity, Eidlin said, a change from recent decades.
“They are fighting for issues that affect broad sectors of the population,” he said.
For example, Hollywood writers want rules for how artificial intelligence can be used to write or rewrite scripts. The outcome of that negotiation could have implications for other industries.
“If they’re talking about wage stagnation, if they’re talking about how to deal with technology, if they’re talking about how to deal with unpredictable schedules,” he said. “These are issues that resonate widely with Canadians, Americans and working people in general, because they are issues that many of them have faced.”
Eidlin says that’s different from the way unions were perceived in the past.
“The shift from like, ‘Why should they understand that?’ A: ‘Oh, they’re fighting for that. I want that too.’ Right? There’s a very, very big change in the public’s mentality there,” she said.