Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Unions Turn to New Ideas to Stay Afloat

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Unions Turn to New Ideas to Stay Afloat

Article excerpt

Unions turn to new ideas to survive

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TORONTO - It took a global war to galvanize Canada's workers to begin organizing themselves into unions in the 1940's.

Nearly 70 years later, experts say attacks of another sort have left those unions fighting for their very survival.

The continuing rise of multinational corporations, growing public apathy toward the labour movement and unprecedented interference from the federal government have forced leaders in the country's labour movement to consider new strategies in order to stay afloat during turbulent times.

Two of Canada's largest private sector unions formally acted on a long-simmering plan last week to merge the two organizations.

In outlining a plan to officially join forces by 2013, the Canadian Auto Workers Union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada said the merger was necessary to combat what they described as growing hostility from the country's corporate and political ranks.

If anything, veteran union watchers believe the CAW and CEP understated the gravity of the situation.

Former CAW president Buzz Hargrove said he has never witnessed such widespread anti-union sentiment in his many decades of involvement with organized labour.

That antipathy has been most clearly demonstrated by the Federal government, he said, citing pieces of legislation forced through Parliament that effectively ended labour disputes at Air Canada, Canadian Pacific Railway and Canada Post on employer-friendly terms.

Such aggressive political action, he said, is designed to create a climate similar to the one that has taken shape in the United States where unionized workers now make up less than seven per cent of the private sector workforce.

"I think the business community watched what's happened in the U.S. and said, 'We haven't been aggressive enough in Canada. We can do the same thing with the support of the governments,'" Hargrove said in a telephone interview.

"And they got the support of government, and they're moving ahead with that."

Hargrove said the past five years have seen an unprecedented spike in labour disputes centred around employers wanting to claw back salaries or benefits.

Some of the more bruising disputes have hobbled industry and left workers out of a job for months, he said.

A strike by employees of mining giant Vale brought local commerce to its knees in the northern city of Sudbury, Ont., for nearly a year between the summers of 2009 and 2010, while a lockout initiated by U.S. Steel kept workers at home for more than 12 months.

Unions claimed defeat in both cases, saying members were losing out on lucrative salary structures or future pension arrangements.

Hargrove said the federal government's well-documented anti-union stance has emboldened companies to take a hard line against unions.

Provincial governments have also followed their example, he said, citing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's recent threat that he could recall the legislature in order to force an end to collective bargaining between the province and its teachers. …

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