Proactive Union Avoidance


Are you at Risk?

Unions have had a tough go of it in recent years. The number of unionized workers in Canada is in significant decline. In 1981, 38% of all workers in Canada were unionized. By 2016, the rates of unionization across the country had dropped to roughly 30% nationally. Ontario has seen an even steeper decline, due in part to the hollowing-out of the manufacturing sector.

To many, that likely comes as good news – when it should be ringing alarm bells.

Just like any business that’s facing revenue pressure, unions have been getting increasingly resourceful and creative at mining opportunities in sectors that have traditionally been non-union.

To underscore the point, unions have recently organized such non-traditional targets as Dental Practices and Veterinary Clinics, often catching the owners completely off guard and unprepared to respond.

We have also seen a marked increase in activity in the restaurant trade with many large, well known national restauranteurs being blindsided by organizing activity. The Hospitality and Restaurant Industry is no stranger to union organizing.

While until recently the organizing activity in the restaurant business has been restricted to quick serve operators, we’ve seen a significant shift in the unions’ focus. In the past year, a Baton Rouge location in Ottawa lost a union drive and is now covered by a collective agreement. A Keg Steakhouse and Bar was also organized north of Toronto, but thanks to smart action by management and outside counsel, the employees chose to decertify from the union even though the union was unable to achieve a collective agreement. In the larger hospitality sector, hotels have long been a fertile ground for unionization.

There is only one reliable way to defend against the risk of unionization. That is to be a fair-minded employer who is proactive in managing employees in an open-handed and respectful manner. The smallest changes to policy, compensation practices, or working conditions – or even the slightest whiff of favouritism or unfair treatment create risks if they are not handled sensitively and in a timely fashion.

Something else to consider: implementation advice (how you enact a change) is often more important than legal advice (whether the change is legal). Too many of the certifications we saw in the last year were the direct result of ‘legally correct’ changes approved by counsel, that were enacted without sensitivity and naturally, provoked a very expensive backlash.

It only takes one disgruntled employee to start an organizing drive. If you wait until an application for certification is filed, it is likely too late to defend and maintain your non-union status. This is only made worse by the changes that the Wynne Government is contemplating to the Labour Relations Act of Ontario, which will make it far easier for unions to organize, quickly. It may be all over with before Management even hears about it.

Not discussing ‘the union thing’ proactively with your employees is a bad strategy; bringing it up when the union’s handing out cards in your parking lot is too late – you’ve missed the boat. But don’t take on the ‘union avoidance’ conversation alone; speak with an expert who can prepare and guide you appropriately.

Like any risk management initiative, you ignore trends and activity around you at your peril. The return on your investment of time and money in a little advance preparation is impossible to quantify.

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