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Workers Unions in Canada

From late 19th century, Canadian workers started exploring the idea of forming a labour movement to promote and defend their interests (Heron, 1996). During this time, not many Canadians understood what a labour movement was all about and it was difficult to convince workers to listen. By late 20th century, up to 60% of Canadian workers were covered by union contracts (Heron, 1996). The most difficult and most vulnerable groups were still left out. These included women, transient immigrants, and the least skilled. Some groups, such as professional workers and clerks, were ambivalent about their state as workers (Black and Silver, 2001). Thus, there was still a large portion of the Canadian workforce that had not been enlisted in the labour movement.

Labour unions have since grown to pursue wider social and political issues. The movement speaks on behalf of all workers in the promotion of social reform and many issues that affect workers’ lives such as health, housing, education, and the environment (Black and Silver, 2001). In many cases, the labour movement has played an active role in shaping the Canadian State, economy, and class structure. Canada was a settler colony in which the native population was pushed from their lands to create space for European society. The aristocratic land-ownership style became a capitalist economy, with industries employing hundreds of workers in different roles (Heron, 1996).

The working class has undergone major changes over the past century. The composition of the labour force in terms of skill sets, skill levels, race and ethnicity, has primarily shaped by the recruitment and employment practices of owners and managers (Murray, 2004). The immigration authorities of the Canadian state also contributed considerably. The process of legislating favourable laws for workers was slow and protracted. Nevertheless, Canadian workers continued to push for their rights while demonstrating deep commitment to the rule of law, unless provoked by the authorities using security forces to suppress labour organising (Black and Silver, 2001).

Workers’ rights in Canada are still under threat today, especially in a climate where employers are feeling the pressures of restructuring, bargaining, and slack job markets (Murray, 2004). The state has taken a lead in the restructuring of several sectors such as steel and auto. All levels of government are facing austerity budgets while public sector works have come under increasing political attacks. With all these happening, unionised workers in Canada are facing a bleak near future. This is the reason why labour unions have been involved a number of political conflicts in recent years (Yates, 2004). Manufacturing industries, their workers and unions, have in particular faced a lot of pressure.

Due to the trend of acquisitions and mergers, new owners sometimes come in with proposals to cut hourly wages, pensions, and benefits (Yates, 2004). This happens despite the companies making record profits and enjoying good growth. The labour unions have generally responded by leading campaign to isolate such companies while pushing them to withdraw such proposals. They have held huge demonstrations and rallies, and in some cases, occupied the plants owned by such companies (Black and Silver, 2001). However, these tactics have not yielded the expected results in most cases, and the issues turned out to mean very little to the general population in the current era.

Union activists and working-class people see their struggle as necessary against a new aggressive attack on them in both public and private sectors (Murray, 2004). The labour union has suffered key defeats in Canada and the U.S., such as autoworker concessions and the loss of defined benefits for new hires in the steel industry. These attacks are a threat to the survival of labour unions. Companies are taking advantage of capital mobility facilitated by free trade. Governments seem to favour companies through various forms of support, including negotiated deals and restructuring strategies (Yates, 2004).

The demands of employers either destroy or substantially weaken the union. They have also departed from addressing the rights of workers. With the movement facing such defeats, workers lack the capacity and willing ness to participate in collective resistance (Black and Silver, 2001). All working people are progressively being affected, from those in well-paying jobs, to those in precarious jobs, on social assistance, and the unemployed. Many working class people have faced culminating frustration in this era of neoliberalism and re-construction (Murray, 2004). They see themselves as being blackmailed by increasingly greedy and wealthy elite.

There is a need for more powerful labour unions in Canada, especially to protect groups of workers such as women, youth and coloured people (Yates, 2004). Many of these workers are subjected to long working hours but are still mired in poverty. Management enjoys greater power and job insecurity is high therefore these workers are vulnerable to dismissal and unfair treatment at work. The wage gap for these groups has increased, and majority of them have expressed a willingness to join unions in order to push for their working rights (Black and Silver, 2001).

Employers and governments have always worked to weaken unions. The Canadian government made changes to the labour law, creating an atmosphere that enables employers to be hostile to unions (Murray, 2004). At the moment, labour unions have little political influence and it would be difficult to bring in new legislation that improves workers’ plight. Furthermore, unions are faced with the prospect of an increasingly diverse workforce with more women and coloured people as potential members. There is fear of loss of power among traditional union members who are mostly white males (Black and Silver, 2001). This has led to less enthusiasm to recruit new members who might also push for changes within the movement.

The topic of ‘workers organising’ is important to me in my working experience. Workers unions are supposed to safeguard the welfare of workers, and this is even more necessary in the current business environment (Murray, 2004). With increasing automation and use of technology, workers are at risk of losing their power in the workplace. Our expendability as workers makes us vulnerable to exploitation by owners and management. In such a situation, our interests are best served through powerful unions that can threaten to paralyse company operations in case their members are being given a raw deal (Yates, 2004). Without this, employers will gain increasing powers over workers and steadily erode our rights and privileges in their pursuit for more profits.


Black, E. and Silver, J. (2001). ‘Creative Organising and Determined Militancy’. In Building a Better World: An Introduction to Trade Unions in Canada. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.

Heron, C. (1996). The Canadian Labour Movement: A Brief History (2nd ed.). Toronto: James Lorimer & Company.

Murray, G. (2004). ‘Forum: Reorganising Unions – Union Myths, Enigmas, and Other Tales: Five Challenges for Union Renewal.’ Studies in Political Economy, 74, pp. 157 – 163.

Yates, C. (2004). ‘Forum: Reorganising Unions. Rebuilding the Labour Movement by Organising the Unorganised: Strategic Considerations’. Studies in Political Economy, 74, pp. 171 – 179.

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