Unions see opportunity as new generation of organizers emerge amid pandemic
Workers are part of a new generation of labour activists, using creative techniques to get their message out to both management and the general public against the backdrop of COVID-19's economic upheaval.
While “unprecedented” has been the go-to term to describe the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the wave of labour upheaval currently moving across the country is the latest turn in a familiar cycle.
Times of crisis have always been linked to labour unrest, says Dimitry Anastakis, who teaches business history at the University of Toronto’s department of history and Rotman School of Management. Labour activity followed both the First and Second World Wars as well as the Great Depression. Anastakis points out the largest strike in Canadian history — the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 — came amid an influenza pandemic.
As the pandemic has dragged on, workers from companies as diverse as Indigo Books and Music, the National Post, Vancouver’s Turning Point Brewing and Matchstick Coffee, and Ottawa’s Superette Wellington cannabis dispensary have joined unions this year.
Union leaders say these workers are part of a new generation of labour activists, using creative techniques to get their message out to both management and the general public against the backdrop of COVID-19’s economic upheaval.
Derek Johnstone, special assistant to the national president at United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, says the union has had more new members than usual this year.
“I think that COVID has had a really powerful impact on how service sector workers — how retail workers, how food manufacturing workers — see themselves,” Johnstone says. “It’s made it abundantly clear not only to themselves, but to the broader Canadian public, and hopefully, to politicians and large employers, that these jobs are important.”
Dollarama and Loblaw employees protested alongside union leaders, and unionized workers spoke out as the COVID-19 pandemic threatened job security for the airline and hotel industries, steel tradespeople and longshore workers.
UFCW initially wasn’t sure how limitations on gatherings would change its organizing efforts, but workers at Indigo were able to run an “inspiring” campaign through social media, Johnstone says.
One of the labour movement’s triumphs of 2020 was the revitalization of General Motors’ plant in Oshawa, Ont., during negotiations with Unifor.
“COVID has forced everyone to rethink the economy and forced everyone to prioritize so, for the first time, we really saw a meshing of the minds. Governments have seemingly put the politics aside,” says Unifor president Jerry Dias.
Dias says he sees the unionization rate rising in Canada, as Unifor has noticed renewed interest from workers at other automakers.