Canadian unions can use past wins to secure their future


CANADIAN UNIONS CAN MAKE THEMSELVES GREAT AGAIN. They will have to go back to the future to do it. That’s the message in the latest research paper from the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights (CFLR).

The glory days for unions in North America came with the passage of the Wagner Act in the USA in 1935. Canadian unions can once again use that act as a model to strengthen their present and secure their future say the authors of Wagner North 2.0: How Canada’s Wagner model of labour relations can be strengthened to ensure greater union density amongst vulnerable workers.

The CFLR paper begins with a before and after review of the Wagner model to confirm it’s historic and current value. This leads to specific ideas on how best to use, expand and extend the lessons and strengths of Wagner into our era, including:

  • protecting the Wagner model and fighting back

  • building down to lower thresholds for representation

  • building-up to create broader-based bargaining units

  • motivating change by going on the offensive.

Wagner model still the best

The paper rejects proposals made by some labour law academics to replace the Wagner model with other legislative schemes. Rather than junk the original Wagner model, the paper calls on the labour movement to adopt a Wagner-based two part strategy:

  • first, protect and strengthen Wagner-type legislation;
  • second, add to it with legislative reforms that allow for broad-based bargaining involving multiple unions and employers.

Wagner North 2.0 analyses several proposals calling for alternative and almost exclusively lesser forms of union rights. These include such concepts as: minority unionism, extension systems and employee association schemes that provide workers a thin version of protections and rights. The paper argues all such proposals should be rejected since they only offer workers “a watered-down form” of collective representation and no possibility of collective action.

Take the offensive

Rather than retreating from the Wagner model, the paper calls on the labour movement to take the offensive. It calls on labour to adopt a strategy aimed at protecting and expanding the model to include broader-based bargaining structures aimed at increasing union coverage.

The Wagner North 2.0 paper offers a short, medium, and long-term approach to expanding broader-based bargaining

In the short-term, the labour movement must recognize the importance of lobbying governments and ideologically supportive opposition parties to put in place legislation that will facilitate the development of multi-employers and/or multi-union bargaining structures.

The mid-term approach is to take the fight to the Courts with a Charter challenge focusing on the most vulnerable workers who face significant barriers to gaining union recognition under Wagner-style legislation.

Finally, in the long-term the labour movement must continue to advocate for electoral reform as a means by which broader-based bargaining can be achieved.

CFLR President, James Clancy, calls the paper a welcome contribution to a debate and discussion that the labour movement needs to have. “If we have any hope of taking on the major challenge of rising income inequality in Canada, then we need to achieve higher union densities and coverage.  

“I think the three-prong approach set out in this paper will help us achieve that goal. The labour movement must prioritize broader-based bargaining as part of its political agenda. We should consider this equivalent in scope to fighting so-called right-to-work legislation, but in the positive direction.

You can download the paper here.

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