For the most part, labour legislation in Canada requires unions to organize on a workplace by workplace basis. This system has worked well in large workplaces with full-time permanent employees, where unions could get bargaining power by organizing large bargaining units. But this model can fragment our bargaining power and has not worked for everyone.
Changes in workplaces over the past few decades have meant more people find themselves employed in small workplaces, and precarious work is becoming much more prevalent. Privatization, contracting out, and other employer strategies have made it much more difficult for workers to unionize under existing laws.
While approximately 70 per cent of the public sector is unionized, some workers have difficulty organizing because they are employed in small workplaces, or are in precarious jobs. Workers from equity-seeking groups tend to be overrepresented in these kinds of vulnerable positions. In the private sector things are worse; only 15 per cent of workers are covered by a union, with much lower rates in small workplaces.
Amendments to labour relations legislation to create structures for broader-based bargaining (BBB) could make unionization easier in some sectors. Broader-based bargaining extends bargaining rights beyond a single site to cover multiple workplaces within a sector, even when there are multiple employers involved.
Under BBB, unions representing employees in two or more workplaces in a sector (for example, child care centres) could apply to the labour board to create a multi-site bargaining unit that is covered by a single collective agreement. The union could then organize other workplaces in that sector, and apply to the labour board to have the newly organized workers covered by the same collective agreement.
Bargaining units made up of small workplaces could grow over time, and increase their bargaining power as their numbers grow. Unions would have greater incentive to organize in small workplaces because bargaining units would be large enough to sustain themselves, and would have enough strength to win good agreements.
Other models could be designed to give access to unionization to home care workers, independent contractors, or others who have not been able to use existing law to gain access to a union.
Broader-based bargaining could make unionization a reality for a lot of vulnerable workers. To be sure, BBB comes with challenges. It would require new strategies for organizing workers and for bargaining effectively.
These challenges are very real. But the prospect that BBB could lead to an expansion of the labour movement – including in the broader public sector – should encourage us to give this concept serious consideration.