The Labor Movement Is Gaining Momentum on Both Sides of the US-Canada Border

Union organizing is gaining steam in both Canada and the US, and support for unions is the highest it’s been for decades. The labor movement should take advantage of this moment.

Workers at Canada’s first unionized Starbucks store, represented by the United Steelworkers, in Victoria, British Columbia, on June 6, 2022. (SB Steelworkers / Twitter)

The labor movement is crushing it right now. The unionization wins across North America in recent months have been inspiring and heartening. They make it look like dominoes have started toppling out of nowhere. In fact, months and years of organizing on the ground are driving the victories as the pandemic acts as a catalyst. But the dominoes are indeed toppling. More should fall — and so should legal regimes that make organizing more difficult.

The pandemic has focused public attention on employers and working conditions. This scrutiny has acted to scratch away surface appearances to reveal an economic model that is centered on profit and exploits workers and consumers. At the same time, new risks related to the pandemic have made many jobs more dangerous, putting workers in peril, often without sufficient protection and added compensation. Corporate giants are among the worst offenders, and much of the recent union formation has been located there.

In the United States, a wave of union wins is tilting the balance of power between workers and bosses. In the spring, Christian Smalls led a successful movement to unionize an Amazon warehouse in New York. Many Starbucks locations have done the same, and more are following. In May, Activision Blizzard employees made history as the first unionized video game studio on the continent. This month, Apple employees in Maryland did the same at their retail store. Medieval Times workers in New Jersey are now headed for their own union vote.

In Canada, the Clayton Crossing Starbucks in Surrey, British Columbia, unionized this month. A separate corporate location in Victoria, BC, is also unionized. Half a dozen other locations, in Alberta, have filed applications for union certification. Scott Lunny of the United Steelworkers (USW) in Western Canada cites a change in BC law, allowing for single-step union certification, as responsible for easing organizing in the province. In a USW release, Lunny says “The recent change to union organizing laws in BC has removed barriers for workers to make it achievable to join together to negotiate better working conditions in their workplaces.”

The legal change in BC has blunted the power of business to resist unionization efforts in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. Business, for its part, has been fighting union drives in North America throughout the recent wave of organizing. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is unabashedly anti-union and the company recently closed a store that tried to unionize. Amazon is still fighting the New York warehouse win. Better labor laws would rebalance the distribution of power between workers and corporations.

Lunny notes that in BC:

When at least 55 percent of workers sign union cards, the certification will be automatically recognized by the Labour Board, removing the opportunity for the company to pursue its anti-union tactics and the subsequent delays that result in unnecessary barriers to organizing.

This law — which allows card check certification — should be the norm in every jurisdiction to prevent corporate skullduggery, including bullying and intimidating workers.

Despite business efforts to resist unionization and a generally — though not universally — unfavorable legal regime, the percentage of employees in unions is growing in Canada. As Rosa Saba reports for the Toronto Star, “In Canada, overall union coverage has been in slow but steady decline, from 32.3 percent in 2000 to 30.2 percent in 2019. But almost two years later, it’s trending upwards, at 30.9 percent in 2021.” Saba notes a string of recent union drives, including employees at Staples, PetSmart, Indigo, WestJet, and Canada Goose. Those efforts, however, were with corporate offices and not franchisees.

Growing union efforts are backed by more than just the workers undertaking them. Unions are popular throughout North America. In the United States, nearly 70 percent of people support them — the highest number since the 1960s. It’s no wonder that the combination of popular support, intense organization efforts, and momentum is working.

But barriers to unionization remain. As labor studies professors Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage argue in the Conversation, labor laws, corporate union suppression efforts and union substitution tactics — employer techniques to mimic union conditions — can make it tough to unionize. So can having to deal with union drives in small workplaces or across franchises rather than across an entire sector. But recent wins in Canada and the United States at local franchises, outlets, and warehouses demonstrate that while the fight is difficult, it is far from impossible. To overcome these obstacles, organizers are beginning to rethink the old organizing rules.

The pandemic isn’t going anywhere any time soon, nor is the affordability crisis. The moment is ripe for a major unionization push across the continent. And momentum is building toward just such a push. Labor and its allies should go all in on the union fight while also agitating to amend laws to make organizing and forming a union easier. A good place to start would be taking a page from the advocacy for the BC card check law. Workers deserve more unionized shops and a legal regime friendlier to unionization. And now is the moment to seize both.