CAMBRIDGE, Ont.—The decision to temporarily withdraw an application to unionize at Toyota Motor Corp.’s plants in Ontario could be a wise one given what’s at stake for the Canadian labour movement, an expert suggests.
Unifor’s decision to withdraw its application with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) to represent workers at Toyota’s manufacturing facilities should not be viewed as a retreat but rather an attempt to bolster its chances of a successful unionization bid, according to Stephanie Ross, associate professor of work and labour studies at York University and president of the Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies (CAWLS).
“There has been an enormous amount of effort that has gone into the Toyota (organization) drive, but also there is a lot at stake,” she said in an interview.
“For the labour movement and for Unifor in particular it’s really crucial for (it) to be successful, so I think they want to make sure that they’re in the best position possible to have a successful vote.”
The union filed paperwork with the labour board to represent Toyota workers on March 31, but announced plans to withdraw its application just days later after the automaker provided a list of 7,500 employees it believes are eligible to be part of a potential bargaining unit across its operations.
Prior to receiving the expanded list of employees, Unifor estimated there were 6,600 union-eligible workers at the facilities in Cambridge and Woodstock, Ont.
It said it had signed cards from about 3,000 workers.
According to Ross, the application withdrawal could serve the union well, giving it the chance to bolster support for organization among the growing roster of employees from the automaker’s three plants that may be eligible for bargaining.
“All of the research about union certification shows that there is usually a drop off in union support between the time that cards are signed and when that mandatory vote for certification takes place,” Ross said.
“The higher you can get the number of cards signed to be as a proportion of the total potential members of a bargaining unit, the more likely it is that the union will be successful.”
Ross said the importance of the size of the support base becomes even more important given the veil of secrecy surrounding the size of the potential bargaining unit.
Employers like Toyota keep that information “very close to its chest,” according to Ross, meaning unions are often left organizing blindly.
“In that sense the deck is stacked against the union from the get-go, because they don’t know if they’ve met any winning conditions until in some ways it’s too late—until they actually go to the labour board with their cards signed—and they’ve made (estimates) about the size of the bargaining unit and that can be completely wrong,” she said.
That doesn’t mean Unifor brass need to go back to the drawing board and rewrite their unionization strategy, Ross continued, but will likely refine the message moving forward.
“They’ve got 3,000 cards signed, and now it’s a question of getting about another 1,000 cards signed to be over the 50 per cent mark,” she said.
The threshold in provincial legislation to push an organization vote through is 40 per cent of total employment.
Ross said breaching that 50 per cent mark acts as a fail-safe in the event employees balk at the idea between signing their cards and voting.
“It might be that they’re going to have to think about whether their appeal to those additional folks is going to have to be changed or modified since they were not amongst the first group that signed up,” Ross said, noting the organization campaign at Toyota began last fall.
“They may be getting into that portion of the workforce that needs a little bit more convincing and reassurance that signing up with the union is actually going to make a positive difference in their work lives.”
There’s also no sense counting Unifor out just yet given its commitment to organization, Ross said.
An amalgamation of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Communication, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) unions, Unifor was launched with a mandate to push for broad representation in Canada’s manufacturing sector, and the fight for Toyota workers is just the first in a number of many organization efforts that could emerge in the coming years.
“Part of the reason the union emerged last year was that the two founding unions … wanted to create a basis for new organizing, especially in manufacturing where they experienced so many losses,” Ross said. “This is a union now that is spending $10-million a year on new organizing … so I think that they’re fairly serious about sustaining the drive because there is a lot at stake.
“If they can make a breakthrough at Toyota I think it will provide the new union with a lot of energy and it will attract other workers to their fold.”
A failed organization bid could be demoralizing for the union and the labour movement across the country, Ross said.