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Canada's largest private-sector union wields considerable clout

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On Labour Day weekend, Canada's newest union will mark its first anniversary. Formed out of the 2013 merger of the Canadian Auto Workers' union and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers' union, Unifor is the largest union in the private sector, boasting some 305,000 members.

Expectations of the union were high at our founding. It would be the largest merger of unions in Canadian history, creating a powerful union well-positioned and resourced to take on the fights that undermine workers' rights and offer the leadership required to build the good jobs all people in Canada deserve.

We have a large representation in Quebec, and members in virtually every sector of the Canadian economy. Maclean's magazine named Unifor's first president, Jerry Dias, the third most powerful person in Canada.

Unifor was formed to be a powerful union capable of restoring the balance between workers and increasingly powerful corporations. In addition to being more powerful than its composite unions, Unifor was founded to take new approaches to Canadian unionism, using new tools and new outreach strategies.

As we arrive at the conclusion of Unifor's first year, it's worth reviewing the question: Do we need a union like Unifor?"

A cursory review of workforce trends coast-to-coast, the answer is a resounding yes.

To name just one example from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent workplace reforms, his government passed legislation last year (Bill C-5) dramatically reducing an employee's right to refuse dangerous work. Bill C-5 eliminated independent health and safety officers in the investigation process, instead giving the ultimate authority to the minister of labour. It also narrows the definition of dangerous work to only apply to "imminent" threats, thereby making it impossible to refuse work that could have negative long-term health implications (think asbestos).

Both of Manitoba's neighbours, Saskatchewan and Ontario, have had close calls with radical, Republican-inspired anti-worker legislation. Before a massive public backlash to Bill 85, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall made a stunning attempt to limit the power of unions while simultaneously empowering employers.

Ontario election runner-up Tim Hudak campaigned on stripping the rights of unions, and therefore working people, to effectively organize and stand up to bad employers.

In this climate, Manitoba might be next. During a time when governments are facing unprecedented pressure to succumb to radical pro-business labour laws, we can't afford to turn the clock back 75 years on basic workplace rights.

Unifor is being proactive about solving the economy's woes and strengthening the employment security of the average working Canadian. This fall, Unifor and its partners will be kick-starting a national dialogue about strategies to improve the labour market. Known as the Good Jobs Summit, unions, employers, government officials, students, community activists, and researchers from across the country will gather in Toronto to have a conversation that is long overdue, and one in which Stephen Harper seems to have little interest.

Here in Manitoba, Unifor is pressing the provincial government to introduce legislation that prohibits the use of replacement workers during a lockout or legal strike. Despite its reputation as a labour-friendly province, the Manitoba government's tolerance for replacement workers dramatically undermines the collective bargaining process by removing incentives for employers to bargain in good faith.

The unfair bargaining that takes place during the use of replacement workers has many side-effects for the surrounding community and the future relationship between permanent workers and the employer. Most importantly, replacement workers prolong labour disputes because the employer has a reduced motivation to return to the bargaining table.

Nobody enjoys labour disputes, but they are a legal and legitimate part of the Canadian economic model that only functions when there is a level playing field. Over 95 per cent of all collective bargaining sessions are resolved without strike or lockout -- anti-replacement worker legislation would only be for the few bad apple employers willing to do anything to gain an unfair advantage.

Whether it be strengthening the collective-bargaining process or sparking a measured dialogue about how Manitoba can be a hub for good, stable jobs, Unifor is working hard to be a union for everyone.

 

Joie Warnock is Unifor's western director.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2014 A17

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