‘We’ve never been busier’: New data from Statistics Canada seems to show a sudden growth in unionization

‘We’ve never been busier’: New data from Statistics Canada seems to show a sudden growth in unionization
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, workers at the Woodbridge Indigo bookstore suddenly found their jobs becoming a lot more difficult — and dangerous.

From increased cleaning to dealing with customers and the constant worry of exposing themselves to the virus, employees were now considered “front-line workers,” and yet not much else had changed about their job.

Before the pandemic they already had issues with their employer, said Greg Saxler, who has worked at the store for more than 10 years. These included a lack of oversight and perceived unfairness stemming from the systems used to rate workers’ performance and discipline them.

During the pandemic, “it just became less acceptable,” said Saxler, and workers’ frustration reached a “breaking point.” (Indigo did not respond to requests for comment.)

Meanwhile, Indigo employees at Square One in Mississauga voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada union in September 2020, raising concerns about wages, sick leave and more. That emboldened workers at the Woodbridge location to do the same, said employee Sabrina Querubin. In early January, they too voted to unionize with UFCW.

The pandemic accelerated what was already happening, said Querubin: “We’re just asking that we be treated fairly. That’s it.”

Canada’s union density rate — the percentage of employed Canadians who belong to unions — , as non-unionized employees lost their jobs at a higher rate than others. With a host of labour issues bubbling to the surface, a number of high-profile union drives took place in health care, retail and other sectors.

Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work and former Unifor economist, says new data from Statistics Canada could indicate a growth in unionization in 2020, and many in the labour movement say the pandemic has spurred interest in organizing from the kind of workplaces that don’t usually unionize.

Ripley’s Aquarium, a Starbucks store in Victoria , and multiple Indigo locations are just some of the businesses where workers have joined up in the past year. UFCW has organized three Indigo locations so far: Square One, Woodbridge and another in British Columbia, said Debora De Angelis, its Ontario regional director.

De Angelis said these union drives in the retail sector represent the frustration of workers who were suddenly “front-line” workers, but without any tangible recognition of the risk they were put in.

“Their health and safety concerns fell on deaf ears,” she said.

UFCW is seeing an uptick in interest, she said: “We’ve never been busier.”

Her union isn’t the only one — unions representing long-term care aides, nurses, and others say they’re getting more calls about unionization.

By the numbers

The union density rate in 2020 was 31.3 per cent, according to Statistics Canada, up from 30.2 per cent in 2019, which is around where it’s been since 2014. It peaked last April at 33.6 per cent, dipped in the summer, then rose and remained steady over the fall and winter, ending the year at 31.5.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean a significant rise in new unionization. Here’s why.

Stanford said the initial rise in union density was likely due to the loss of non-unionized jobs. However, he notes that after the summer, union density went up again even as employment also rose. (Union density went from 30.2 per cent in August to 31.6 in September, and stayed above 31 until the end of the year. Meanwhile, unemployment went from 10.2 per cent in August to 8.6 per cent in December.)

Stanford attributes this in part to new hires in unionized workplaces — for example, the education sector likely brought on more employees in the fall. But he also thinks it could indicate a growth in unionization.

University of Waterloo economist Mikal Skuterud said the data primarily illustrates where job losses were, not new unionization efforts.

Workers were far less likely to lose their jobs if they were unionized, and the sectors that saw large amounts of job loss — such as retail and restaurants — aren’t highly unionized. Skuterud notes that union density peaked around the time Canada saw its highest unemployment levels.

Stanford thinks the pandemic has shown the benefits of unions during a crisis, noting that members were less than half as likely to lose their jobs in the initial downturn.

Certain sectors saw their density rate rise more than others, in particular education, health care, and public administration and safety. Overall, the rise in union density was much stronger in the public sector, Stanford said.

Stanford said the increase in union density during 2020 was also bigger for women than men, and attributed that to the higher concentration of women in the public sector, which has much higher rates of unionization.

COVID-19 safety concerns prompt union drives

At any rate, many unions report seeing more interest during the pandemic. Chris Macdonald, assistant to the Unifor national president, said the union is hearing from workers whose industries have been most affected by the pandemic, such as retail and grocery.

“The growth in our union in the retail sector has been significant during the pandemic,” he said.

There’s no question that the union is getting interest from sectors it wouldn’t have without the pandemic, said Macdonald. But it is also seeing a drop in interest from industries it was focusing on before the pandemic, such as hospitality and gaming, thanks to closures and layoffs in those sectors.
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