February 24, 2018

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Opinion

Precarity in the union workplace harmful

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/6/2016 (618 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The tug of war between corporate power and organized labour is a constant feature of Canada’s political landscape.

Canadian unions have a long history of improving workplace conditions, and today, most unionized workers are found in the public sector. They have a played a huge role in ensuring fairness and representation in the public service and are crucial defenders against harmful workplace practices. Throughout our country’s history, unions have challenged worsening work conditions through collective bargaining, court challenges, legislative changes and public-awareness campaigns.

However, over the past 30 years, austerity-related policies and legislation that promote individual responsibility over collective well-being have created a new and more hostile labour environment in the public sector. Of the many issues, precarious work in the public sector is especially problematic.

Precarious work, with its low wages, lack of benefits, unpredictable scheduling and hours and insecurity is creeping into the public service. Recently, we released a study that shows how precarious public-sector work has harmful consequences for public-service workers and users, and that racialized, aboriginal, LGBTTQ* women and women with disabilities often lose out the most. For workers, general working conditions and rights decline, while negative impacts on health, family and community intensify. And, for users, the access, quality, accountability and safety of services often get worse.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/6/2016 (618 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The tug of war between corporate power and organized labour is a constant feature of Canada’s political landscape.

Canadian unions have a long history of improving workplace conditions, and today, most unionized workers are found in the public sector. They have a played a huge role in ensuring fairness and representation in the public service and are crucial defenders against harmful workplace practices. Throughout our country’s history, unions have challenged worsening work conditions through collective bargaining, court challenges, legislative changes and public-awareness campaigns.

However, over the past 30 years, austerity-related policies and legislation that promote individual responsibility over collective well-being have created a new and more hostile labour environment in the public sector. Of the many issues, precarious work in the public sector is especially problematic.

Precarious work, with its low wages, lack of benefits, unpredictable scheduling and hours and insecurity is creeping into the public service. Recently, we released a study that shows how precarious public-sector work has harmful consequences for public-service workers and users, and that racialized, aboriginal, LGBTTQ* women and women with disabilities often lose out the most. For workers, general working conditions and rights decline, while negative impacts on health, family and community intensify. And, for users, the access, quality, accountability and safety of services often get worse.

In this environment, confronting worsening work conditions is difficult. Collective actors’ ability to resist has diminished. Back-to-work legislation, bargaining blockages, wage-restraint laws and limitations on collective bargaining rights have limited workers’ capacities to resist.

Responding to this shift requires new tactics. We need to find creative strategies to stop precarious work from becoming an accepted category of employment. So how do we stop the tide of precarious work? Our research shows two things.

First, joint resistance and collaboration between unions and others such as academic researchers, community organizations and the wider public are proving to be more and more effective. Collaborations can help minimize the presence and impacts of precarious public-sector work and services by highlighting sneaky strategies employers use to cause workers to stay out of the action.

On the one hand, partnerships help knowledge grow by bringing together the resources available for research. On the other hand, strengthening relationships can go a long way in fostering engagement and strengthening workers’ and researchers’ capacities. By lending individuals and groups the opportunity for exchanging views on campaign tactics and learning about each other’s work, all parties benefit.

One example of just such a partnership is the Changing Public Services Research Network, which examines the impacts of changing public services on women across Canada in order to find areas for research and action. The network is made up of partners from the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Canadian Labour Congress and the University of Guelph. Academic researchers, research assistants and regional co-ordinators for four regional clusters (Halifax, the National Capital Region, Saskatoon, and Vancouver) make up the network.

Second, opposing precarious public-sector work also means learning how to constantly incorporate the needs, priorities and goals of workers, especially those who are marginalized. For example, precariously employed women already experience inadequate access to paid labour, child care, retraining, legal resources and health care. These women also lack time to volunteer, face under-representation in union leadership positions and endure employer retaliation, so they are often strained to join in resistance efforts.

Indeed, research shows women, racialized people and low-income members are less likely to be involved in union activities. Expanding membership and thus diversifying perspectives on the consequences of, and resistance to, public-sector precarity is key to maintaining democratic and effective organizations.

Countering public-sector precarity is not impossible. With collaboration and a widening of membership, unions will have the knowledge and resources they need to continue to effectively represent the interests and rights of workers in Canada.

 

Yuriko Cowper-Smith is a PhD candidate in political science and a project manager at the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute at the University of Guelph. Leah Levac is an assistant professor in political science and a community-engaged scholar at the University of Guelph.

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