Not Your Father’s Union

The challenging face of labour

By Jason Foster

When Maria Lemus arrived in Canada from El Salvador in 1987, becoming a vocal union supporter was the farthest thing from her mind. She had just narrowly escaped being kidnapped in a place of political turmoil. The former secretary and one-time dentistry student saw Canada as a refuge. She just wanted to keep her head down and provide for her family, eventually finding work as a healthcare aide. “Canada is a place for me to be alive. For me to live and be very grateful,” says Lemus. “I try to do my best. I go to work and do my best. My family is my priority.”

Yet through the fall and winter of 2012/13, Lemus and 110 other healthcare aides and licensed practical nurses (LPNs), mostly immigrant women, walked a picket line at Monterey Place, a privately operated seniors care home in Calgary. Their preference was to continue looking after the seniors in the home, assisting them with dressing, bathing and other personal needs, yet they were locked out by their employer after demanding better pay and more respectful treatment from management. The employer anticipated that this collection of Asian, Central American and African women would quickly give up their demands and return to work.

They didn’t.

For 283 days the cluster of women braved rain, cold weather, taunts by management and strikebreakers and an imposing security and police presence. It was the longest strike in the history of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), who have represented the workers since 2011 and who afforded them nominal strike pay. Joining a union can be scary for workers like Lemus, as fear of employer reprisals are not unfounded. Strikes, however, can be even harder. Lemus recounts that winter was the toughest part. “Winter was very cold. I had problems with my asthma; it was hard to cover myself in –20°C, –30°C.”

There were times when Lemus contemplated giving up and crossing the line. One incident with police was particularly hard: “One of the officers tried to arrest me even though I did nothing wrong. My mind turned to back home [to the kidnapping incident]. It was like a flashback.” Heading home that night she wondered if it was all worth it. Her kids held her resolve. “I told them what happened and my kids said, ‘Mom, you are very strong!’ ”

Her kids’ words and remembering why she was on strike in the first place kept Lemus and her co-workers on the picket line all those months. “What stopped me from giving up was the way management treated us. I said we are telling the truth, it is reality. We are human beings. We are fighting for our residents.”

They eventually settled on a four-year agreement with significant wage increases and language that addressed some of their concerns about respect. Today Lemus remains active in the union. “I find out the union, they try to fix problems between employees and employers. If we do not have union, it is very easy for the employer to say, well, if you don’t like it, there are the doors. You can take it or leave it. With a union it is totally different.”

Maria Lemus’s story is not isolated. As it turns out, healthcare and other local service-sector workers have grown increasingly discontent and increasingly willing to do something about it. At the same time Lemus walked the picket line, two other strikes of healthcare aides and LPNs, again mostly immigrant women, occurred at Revera Riverbend Retirement Residence and at Hardisty Care Centre, two Edmonton private care facilities. In the year since, there have been other labour disputes at long-term care facilities around the province.

Of the 19 strikes in Alberta since 2010, 13 have come from non-traditional union occupations.

And it is not just healthcare. More and more, the locus of labour strife is playing out in unexpected places. There have been 19 strikes in Alberta since 2010, and 13 have come from non-traditional union occupations. In addition to the private assisted living facilities, Alberta has witnessed disputes among taxi drivers, grocery store clerks, school support staff and food service workers. The disputes revolved around jobs mainly filled by women, immigrants and young workers. They were, for the most part, service-oriented occupations; jobs that serve people rather than make things. Some of the stories are fascinating.

In an unprecedented move, almost 800 taxi drivers in Edmonton, a majority of whom are immigrants, went on strike in 2012 to protest excessive insurance fees. While the strike ultimately failed (the union was decertified), it was the first time in Alberta that taxi drivers, a group who often see themselves as independent contractors rather than employees, took collective action to improve their working conditions.

In the same year, 900 support staff at Edmonton Catholic School Board, including school secretaries, librarians and aides, waged a three-week strike, the first in their history, over working conditions and guaranteed hours of work. While most school support staff in Alberta are unionized, their loyalty to the students and reluctance to strike have damped union involvement. During the strike a spokesman for the Edmonton Catholic Support Staff Association, the union representing the workers, highlighted the tension. “This has been a hard decision for our members,” said Daniel Burrell. “We got these jobs because we love the students we work with. But we do have a responsibility to our families and our children to be able to look after them.”

In 2013 United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 401 (UFCW 401) took almost 9,000 Superstore employees in Alberta on strike. Superstore’s workforce is predominantly women born in Asia and Africa and young employees from various backgrounds. Mobilizing these workers was a challenge, says UFCW 401 communications representative Christine McMeckan. “We have a multitude of age ranges, people with degrees, new Canadians. It is quite eclectic. A lot of people come from backgrounds where unions aren’t predominant or don’t have a good reputation.” McMeckan notes that 86 per cent of Superstore employees are part-time.

While the main issues in the strike were monetary, pent-up frustration about employee treatment also was a factor. “The employer was really messing around with work schedules. They were saying we don’t care what you have going on in your world; we are going to use you as a disposable workforce,” says McMeckan. “That is a dignity issue.”

The strike was short, lasting only two days, and successful. The workers won a number of significant gains in the agreement, including restricting managers’ arbitrary or retaliatory use of scheduling.

It is not just about strikes and picket lines. Quietly, workers like Lemus are joining unions and finding their voice in the workplace. People services are the new focus of union organizing. Since 2010, union organizing has focused on health care, retail and food service. This is a significant trend. Long thought to be unorganizable due to high turnover, aggressive employers and vulnerable workers, service occupations are now the most likely source of new unionization in Alberta. Today when workers seek out a union, even in the face of employer opposition, they tend to be women and immigrants employed in the service sector.

Unions are finding out that the fertile ground for organizing is no longer in factories, warehouses and refineries but in retail stores, nursing homes and kitchens. Plus, as recent labour disputes attest, those new members are proving to have some mettle.

Fertile ground for union organizing is no longer in factories but in stores, nursing homes and kitchens.

Anecdotes can be confirmed by overall unionization trends in Alberta. In 2013 only about one in three union members were from occupations traditionally known for unionization: construction, manufacturing, trade and transportation. The bulk come from the service sector, broadly defined.

In particular, much of union membership lies in the public and quasi-public sector (organizations such private nursing homes that perform government-funded services). Some 60 per cent of union members are in the public sector, fully two-thirds of which is unionized. Naturally most public sector work, in particular education and healthcare (the largest public employment areas), is in human services. In contrast, only 11 per cent of Alberta’s private sector jobs are unionized.

It may surprise some that Alberta’s booming resource extraction industries are not bastions of union strength. Fewer than 10 per cent of workers in those occupations belong to a union. What may give the impression of union strength in the tar sands is the labour intensity of building the massive projects north of Fort McMurray. Most of those construction jobs are unionized, but these are transient, temporary jobs. Permanent employment operating the mines is largely non-union; only one currently operating mine is unionized—Suncor. Conventional oil production is no different. While most refineries are unionized, exploration and drilling operations are largely non-union.

Over the past 20 years, union density in Alberta—the proportion of the workforce that is unionized—has remained fairly steady at about one in four workers, the lowest in the country. What is shifting is where those unionized jobs are located. The emerging picture is of a receding tide of industrial unionization being replaced by growing numbers of service sector union members.

With the sectoral shift also comes a demographic shift. Women now make up a slim but growing majority of union members in Canada and, since 2005, are more likely than men to be unionized (33 per cent of female vs 30 per cent of male workers). Data on race, ethnicity and immigration status is harder to come by but there is evidence that unionization rates among racial “minorities” in Canada is rising. Canadians under 25, however, are still half as likely to be members of a union.

When I first began working for the labour movement almost 20 years ago, I became a member of a union local whose largest bargaining unit was a cardboard box plant. Membership meetings were mostly dominated by white men working a hard, blue-collar job. When I looked around the various union locals in the province at the time, there were only a few units of healthcare aides in nursing homes and no taxi drivers, no Starbucks baristas.

Today my old local no longer exists. The cardboard plant shut down a few years back and the remaining members joined other locals. In contrast, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) late last year issued a press release trumpeting the certification of a new group of healthcare aides and LPNs at a nursing home in High River, a unit that will be dominated by immigrant women working a tough human-services job.

In a single generation, the shape of Alberta’s labour movement has undergone a seismic shift. However, this shift is not by chance, nor is it unexpected. A number of forces have led to this.

We have seen this kind of shift in the labour movement before. The wave of public sector unionization in the 1960s and 1970s brought more women and more white-collar workers into the labour movement. Their arrival sparked a period of renewal and transformation in labour. However, while the influx of public sector workers increased the diversity of the labour movement, unions were still clustered in industries that tended toward stability. Unionized jobs were more likely to be full-time, permanent and long-lasting. Benefit and pension plans enhanced security. It was not uncommon for workers to remain with one employer for their entire working lives.

In service jobs, employers expect their workers to be caring—to perform “emotional labour.”

Today’s introduction of immigrants, women and young workers also makes the labour movement more diverse than before. But this time the influx includes industries with much less stability. Many, if not most, of the jobs are part-time and employment tenure is insecure and short-term. Benefits and pensions are rare and spartan. New union members are more likely to have a number of occupations over the course of their careers, and may even hold multiple jobs simultaneously.

One of the main factors in this shift is broader change in Alberta’s economy. Due to globalization and neoliberal government policies, companies are actively jettisoning the post-war model of employment, sometimes called the Fordist Compromise. Permanent, secure employment is replaced with temporary, insecure employment. Wages are driven down, with benefits reduced or non-existent. Accompanying this process is a general deindustrialization of the Canadian economy, where service employment grows as manufacturing moves overseas. This transition has been under way for at least 30 years and it continues apace. We are seeing more unionization of insecure workers because that’s where the jobs are.

We are also witnessing a demographic shift in many of these occupations. Twenty years ago, many of the jobs at the centre of recent labour disputes, such as grocery workers, healthcare workers or even meatpacking plant workers, were held by Caucasians. These were, at the time, relatively desirable occupations. The erosion of the quality of those jobs over time has shifted the available pool of willing labour. These sectors have been degraded from stable, middle-class occupations, which means workers in more marginal labour market positions—immigrants, women, young workers—replace the incumbents.

There is another reason why groups of workers who at one time were considered the most challenging to organize and mobilize are today the biggest focus of union activity. It comes down to the nature of their work. In service employment, in particular human services, the employment relationship is different. Not only does the employer want workers to be productive, they are also asking them to be caring. In academic language we call it “emotional labour,” but the essence is the worker is asked to engage their emotions in the service of their employer.

In a factory, the worker has to give their time, attention and muscle but their attitude, mood and emotions remain their own. In Ben Hamper’s entertaining memoir Rivethead he describes in detail the mental games he plays to help him overcome the mundane, repetitive nature of his work in an auto plant. He uses his imagination to turn his work into a set of challenges or games or he dreams up new ways to infuriate the boss. A part of him remains autonomous despite the alienation he feels about the work.

In contrast, for a healthcare worker emotions are part of the work. They need to be attentive, compassionate, patient and solicitous, all the while being asked to work faster and harder by the employer. A similar demand is made of other service sector workers, who are required to be cheerful, friendly and accommodating. This “all-in” requirement alters how workers view their job, themselves and their employer.

At times this emotional engagement can damp militancy. The worker places their loyalty with the client and the need to serve them, making the worker less likely to mobilize in their own interest. This tendency is particularly strong in healthcare. These workers can be hard to organize.

Yet emotional engagement can lead to impressive bursts of collective solidarity. The employer is asking their employees to treat clients with dignity and respect. But when the employer fails to afford its employees a similar level of respect, the contradiction can become quite apparent and lead to strong reactions. That is why we see in recent Alberta strikes that dignity and respect were as important, if not more important, than wages in motivating workers. The workers’ sense of humanity and dignity was offended and they rose up in defence of themselves. Joining a union is one way to do that.


Strikers at an April 2014 rally outside Edmonton’s St. Thomas Health Centre. (Tyler Bedford, AUPE)

hat traditionally under-represented workers are turning to unions in larger numbers is a good thing for the labour movement and for society at large. First, it will most certainly improve the quality of work for these new members. It might also help unions stem the losses from shrinking industrial sectors. Growing union strength may also lead to a reversal of the downward trend in wages and working conditions in the service sectors.

Yet a larger consequence is possible, if unions are able to grasp it. The influx of immigrants, women, young workers and other under-represented workers into the labour movement—and their increased willingness to stand up for their rights—has the potential to revitalize the labour movement much like public sector workers did in the 1960s. Traditional sites of union activity are increasingly moribund, trapped either by comfortable complacency or nail-biting insecurity. Women like Maria Lemus have the potential to bring new energy and vitality into the movement. They are strong, committed, passionate and brave, and they are proving themselves effective at fighting for justice and dignity.

A stronger labour movement is good for everyone. Unions help increase equality in society, and the skills and confidence workers gain through union activity strengthen democracy by getting more people engaged—socially and politically—in community life.

Yet the new faces of labour are not like the old. The rough “guy” talk of the boys from the cardboard box plant and the traditional “strong leader” model of union structure do not fit so well with these new members, who have different backgrounds and a different set of priorities. If unions are going to reap the benefits of their new converts, they must do things differently. They need to stop, listen and work with their new members to find how to best move forward together. Change might mean different organizing strategies, it might mean rethinking union structures, and it might mean paying more attention to the human side of the ledger as well.

The good news is that early signs are promising. Just ask Maria Lemus. She told us family is her priority. The reason she supports the union is because, through their actions in the 2012 strike and since, they proved to her that “they treat us like a family.” And, for her, that is what matters.

Jason Foster is academic coordinator for industrial relations at Athabasca University, where he has worked since 2000.


Insult to Injury

On October 21, 2009, a man with a high-powered rifle took several hostages and held them for nine hours at the Edmonton offices of the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB). Patrick Clayton was an injured construction worker and a disgruntled WCB claimant. Thankfully, the siege ended with a whimper, not a ...

Cut to the Bone

If you eat Alberta beef tonight, odds are it was processed by one of the 2,300 workers at the sprawling XL Lakeside Packers facility just outside of Brooks. The plant is the largest slaughter house in Canada and the largest employer in the region. It began its life in the ...

The Year of Bargaining Diplomatically

Last year the government of Alberta faced a mountain of public-sector contract negotiations. A whole mountain range, actually. Collective agreements covering roughly 180,000 employees expired: over 40,000 members in the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA); over 30,000 nurses of the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA); some 19,000 paramedics, lab workers and ...