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Why Unionizing Canadian Workplaces is More Important Now Than Ever During The Pandemic

Thinking about unionizing your workplace? Here are the basics of what workers in Canada need to know

For many industries, the pandemic has accelerated job loss and exacerbated workplace hazards.The transmission and management of COVID-19 has both revealed and magnified existing systemic inequities in our society.

Workers are taking the hit for employer and government mismanagement of public outbreaks and many have sprung into collective action to defend their lives and livelihoods by taking steps to unionize.

The reality is your employers’ first priority is their profits and their legacy, not their workers.

Workers have been experiencing high levels of precarity across various industries. The markers of precarity in the workplace are rapid growth in contractual and outsourcing work, providing only the minimum number of legislated sick days, reduced or no health benefits, and exposure to unsafe working conditions.

Black, Indigenous, racialized and women workers are overrepresented in high-risk, low wage and unsafe work. Many of them are personal support workers, factory workers and migrant farm workers. These workers have suffered unnecessary losses during the pandemic without pause for mourning and the anxiety they face as a result of daily exposure in unsafe working conditions.

It is in this context that unions can be powerful levers for justice.

What is a union?

Although many of us have heard of unions, one of the many questions that surfaces for organizers is what exactly is a union, and how do you unionize?

A union is when a group of workers join together formally to collectively advocate for better working conditions. This involves negotiating their job contract with their employer through collective bargaining. Fair wages, benefits, safer working conditions, and job protection are among the many things that workers can fight for through their union.

In most cases, workers join an already established labour union in their respective industry or trade. Other workers choose to form an independent local union or join employee-associations, which are specific to designated professions.

Union organizing on the surface involves the procedural steps necessary for forming a union: from signing union membership applications to filing at the Labour Relations Board.

While these are the legal steps, union organizing represents so much more. It is a strategic plan of actions workers take to build majority support around a shared vision for a unionized workplace. This involves building worker cohesion and creating demands around a vision for a better workplace.

Worker demands are negotiation points; they are the solutions to the issues identified by workers. Early on in the unionizing process themes will emerge around what workers want. It can be really powerful to share what other workers have achieved through unionization as a way to inspire workers to imagine the full range of possibilities beyond the strict confines of the workplace.

“ I am inspired by union locals that go beyond the worker relationship and workplace. These locals provide services as active community organizations.They bargain into their collective agreement support around international work permits, funds for education, safety and policing, union funds for gender-affirming procedures, COVID funds, all of which allows workers to respond more quickly. Yeah some of it is money, some of it is just around language that doesn’t cost the employers much but are big politically.”

– Tzazná Miranda Leal, CUPE, Union Organizer.

Who can unionize?

Most workers in Canada have the right to unionize their workplace and there are various options to actualizing this right despite management’s best efforts to limit it.

Labour relations legislation sets out the terms for unionizing your workplace. However, certain categories of workers are ineligible to unionize, such as independent contractors. As a result, there has been a major push by unions, labour and community activists to expand union rights to include more workers.

Foodora courier workers are among a growing number of “gig” workers who have fought for union recognition. Their employer challenged Foodora couriers’ right to unionize by classifying them as independent contractors rather than employees. In a historic decision, the courts agreed with the couriers that they were employees last year. This court ruling helps Uber Black car drivers currently in the midst of a union drive.

If in doubt about your right to unionize, call a union.

Rules for card signing

  • There is a minimum threshold of signed cards required by the provincial Labour Relations Board to unionize. The number varies by province. Some (like BC) follow a two-step process. The first step is to sign the designated number of union cards required to initiate a secret ballot vote which is the last step in the process. Other provinces have a process that, upon reaching the specified threshold, the union can petition the labour board for union certification without a secret ballot vote.
  • Industries that fall under federal jurisdiction have an automatic card check. In this case workers sign a membership card and pay a nominal fee to join the union.

A union organizer will be able to help you figure out whether your workplace falls under provincial or federal jurisdiction. In all cases, your employer never sees the signed cards. Only the union and the labour board see the signed cards.

Union drives — the process for unionizing

The steps to forming a union may appear straightforward, but things can get complicated when management starts their anti-union campaign. Here are some practical things to consider when organizing your workplace:

  • Keep the unionizing process as quiet as possible, employers should not know.
  • Start with a few trusted people, with the intention to evolve and expand your organizing committee over the course of the union drive to ensure it represents the demographic of employees and the varied experiences in the workplace.
  • Contact and interview unions that represent workers in your industry or trade. Consider what is unique about your workplace. For example, are you mainly contractual workers, newcomers, or does your workplace have multiple worksites? Look for a union that can support your unique circumstances. Here are a few questions to ask:
    • What resources will the union provide to support your campaign?
    • How effective was the union in negotiating the first collective agreement within your industry, trade or sector?
    • What is the union’s vision for your industry, trade or sector?
  • Once you choose a union, they will assign you an organizer to support your organizing drive and develop with the committee a strong campaign plan to unionize.
  • It is important to aim for 75% or higher of your co-workers to sign union cards. This is what is known as a “supermajority.” Not only does a supermajority ensure that you have the numbers to meet the minimum requirement to initiate a secret ballot vote (in provinces where that is required), it provides the assurance that a majority of workers will vote “yes” to unionizing.
  • Having one-on-one conversations with your coworkers is key to building union support. This step is all about listening and understanding what your coworkers care about. This can open with a simple question, such as “if there is one thing you would change about your job what would that be?” It is important to note that these conversations should happen off company time during a break, or before or after work — not on work time.
    • Having a strategic get out the vote plan is necessary to win. It can be as simple as calling card-signers, reaffirming their support and the reasons why you are unionizing.

While this list is largely procedural and tactical, a truly successful campaign to unionize begins and ends with relationships, trust and solidarity. Your committee’s organizing efforts will lead to identifying patterns of systemic oppression in your workplace.

The committee will gain insights into the needs and wants of the workers most harmed. Leaders will begin to surface as they design, inform and invite more workers into the drive. They will have access to workers who will have their trust, understand their fears and represent their message. This builds a foundation of trust and solidarity which is needed to secure your first collective agreement.

Building Solidarity

“Organizing is not a science, it’s all about relationships and conversations. When you allow workers a space to talk and build stronger relationships that’s the union.”

– Aminah Sheikh, Organizer with Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.

It is important to recognize that not all workers experience the workplace and their communities the same way. Avoid taking a “colourblind” approach where social identities are erased and assumes that all workers are treated the same by employers.

This approach overlooks racism, sexism and other forms of oppression experienced by many workers. Management will seek to undermine union solidarity by exploiting the divisions or signs that the organizing committee is not speaking with a unified voice.

The end goal is not just to unionize — it is to negotiate a strong contract with the employer that reflects the needs and interests of the collective. Deep, meaningful and sustained victories come with a focus on relationship-building and an unwavering commitment to equity.


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Work & Rights columnists
Liz Walker and Shanice Regis-Wilkins are union organizers. Walker has helped organize anti-poverty groups and community legal clinics. Regis-Wilkins is a social justice activist interested in building anti-racist, anti-fascist movements and has previously written for Our Times magazine.

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