Unifor looks to grow membership in new non-traditional sectors

TORONTO – Canada’s newest union has a few ideas on how to expand it’s already sizable membership even during turbulent times for the labour movement.

The Canadian Auto Workers union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada merged this weekend to form a new group called Unifor.

The merged union already has around 300,000 members but discussion at Unifor’s founding convention in Toronto this weekend has been highly concerned with membership expansion — including organization in traditionally non-unionized industries.

This comes at a time when labour feels it is under attack, a point that was made forcefully at the Unifor convention.

“There is no doubt that the union moment in the private sector is on its heels, it has been in retreat for some years now,” said Nelson Wiseman, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

Wiseman said when unions were created in Canada they were organized around individual sectors of the workforce, now many unions are a combination of multiple sectors.

“It is a sign of their weakening power that they have to combine,” said Wiseman, pointing to declining membership rates in Canadian unions.

An early test for the new union could come this fall when legislative Bill-C377, a private member’s bill the would force unions to file financial statements, making public any expenses over $5,000, along with the salaries of their employees making more than $100,000, will again be debated on Parliament Hill.

“The Conservative government has decided to challenge our democratic right to organize and collect dues. They are singling out unions. They’re attacking our finances. They’re attacking our ability to represent our members,” said newly elected Unifor president Jerry Dias in his acceptance speech on Saturday.

A spokesman for Minister of Labour Kellie Leitch said that the minister has contacted Dias to congratulate him and discuss ways of working together to improve job opportunities.

Unifor official Fred Wilson has been sitting on the membership expansion working group at the conference.

“The most significant thing about Unifor’s membership drive is our conventional organizing capacity, which will be formidable,” said Wilson.

The union will be setting aside a tenth of it’s budget for projects like workplace sign-up drives and footing legal bills for groups in Canada trying to unionize.

“By allocating 10 per cent of our total revenue to organizing means that we will have approximately $10 million for organizing, that is very large war chest for a Canadian union,” said Wilson.

But Unifor has made it clear they will also be looking at less traditional methods for expanding its membership.

“We will have three categories of membership in the new union, one category will be members in bargaining units, the second are retired members and a third category will be members without collective units,” said Wilson.

According to Wilson, the organization of groups of people without collective units will be done by new community chapters.

For example, Dias said that he applauded the movement to organize by fast food workers in the U.S.

How this new approach will work in practice is still to be seen, says Wilson.

“Unifor was born yesterday (Saturday) and the new category of membership only began yesterday, so we will have to stay tuned for the specifics of where you will see these new approaches to organizing taking shape.”

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