Low unemployment could boost trend of union organizing in retail, service: experts

As Canada’s unemployment rate remains near historic lows, experts say interest in unions among retail and service workers will continue to grow during the COVID-19 pandemic — even as workers face uphill battles with powerful big employers .

The pandemic has been a catalyst for many frontline workers, who union organizers say are incentivized to fight for better wages and working conditions in sectors where unions are not common.

“When we look at how the retail and service industry has grown in general over the last few years, it’s been an extremely challenging time for workers,” said Kim Novak, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1518, a Sephora store that opened last year. union.

Since 2020, major retailers including Starbucks, Cineplex, Indigo, Sephora and PetSmart have launched union campaigns. Just this Friday, workers at a Starbucks in Edmonton voted to join the United Steelworkers union, joining their counterparts in cities across Alberta and British Columbia.

When there aren’t as many potential workers sitting on the sidelines, companies have fewer hiring options. That tends to favor unionized jobs because it puts workers in a better bargaining position, said Nicole Denier, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Alberta who studies North American jobs and labor markets.

Economist and labor expert Jim Stanford said in an email that this makes workers less concerned about being fired for union activity because they can find another job relatively quickly.

“Once they unionize and start bargaining collectively, lower unemployment gives them more bargaining power,” he said.

But Stanford says the deck still favors employers.

“It would be wishful thinking that a relatively tight labor market alone would somehow cause a sea change in unionization trends,” he said.

Union organizers, including Nowak, say they are increasingly interested in workers in industries where unionization rates have been low for decades, including retail, food service and warehousing.There will be more union applications in B.C. in 2022 than in 2021, says Scott Lunny, director of the Western Canadian Federation of Steelworkers

But the increased union interest described by organizers is not reflected in the Statistics Canada data. Only 12.47% of retail workers are unionized in February 2023, little changed from five years ago. Fewer workers in the accommodation and food service sector are unionized, less than 6 percent, also nearly unchanged from five years ago.

Stanford said in an interview that it may take time for new union movements to show up in Statistics Canada data because unionized workplace data are often based on collective agreements, which can take a long time to consolidate after a successful union movement.

The lag also gives the company time to try to undermine union support, Stanford said.

But that’s not the only obstacle workers face, he said.

Currently, these chains have far more unionized locations than their non-unionized counterparts. For example, Starbucks opened nearly 950 company-operated stores in Canada as of October 2, 2022, while Indigo had 173 stores as of April 2, 2022.

Because unionization is typically one brick-and-mortar workplace at a time, chain store employees are at a disadvantage, although some stores are able to bargain as a unit with other stores in the same geographic area, Renney said.

One change that would have a big impact if workers could bargain in larger groups, similar to how construction workers unionize by industry and geography rather than by individual workplace, Stanford said.

Some changes are already underway. For example, a one-step certification process was introduced in British Columbia last year to make it easier and faster for workplaces to unionize, and the British Columbia Labor Council credited the change in its annual report to an increase in applications for certification. In February, a fourth Starbucks store in British Columbia joined the USW under this new process.

In the long run, Novak believes, workers have gained enough momentum to make a difference.

“It’s a slow burn of how workers stand together,” she said. “It starts with these campaigns that don’t necessarily show differences in the percentage of unionization across the country.”

She said she believed that as more workplaces unionized and workers across the country closely watched the results of collective agreements, “we’re going to see those percentages start to increase.”

Meanwhile, even a collective agreement could end up benefiting workers across the country.

That’s what happened at North America’s only unionized Sephora, in Kamloops, British Columbia, where workers agreed to a policy in their collective agreement that the retailer implemented nationwide.

Renney believes there has been a shift in the way employees see their own worth.

“They heard a lot of rhetoric and didn’t see a lot of action,” he said.

Rosa Saba, Canadian Press

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