Generation gaps within unions creating more labour woes

(Kara Oosterhuis/RealAgriculture)

Rail conductors, port workers, government staff, and even grocery store employees either are in the midst of a strike or have been on strike, sometimes more than once, in the last few years.

Work stoppages are on the rise in several industries, but there’s more friction than just between employee and employer: disagreements and rifts are becoming apparent within unions themselves.

David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, says there are a number of factors that have come together to create a perfect storm of more labour unrest and what he sees as a gap between what the union leaders and negotiators say is a good deal and what members are willing to accept.

The on-again, off-again strike at B.C.’s ports is an example, where leaders negotiated a deal that was later rejected by members (Editor’s note: another deal was being struck at the time of writing).

In many cases, union members are asking for more money to cover the rising cost of living, but it’s also becoming increasingly common to see arguments over flexibility, working from home, and more.

The pandemic exacerbated an already clear labour shortage in Canada and that has empowered workers, Coletto says. Grocery store workers, port workers, medical staff were all told just how essential they were during the pandemic — and now want to be shown just how much they are valued.

Then, there is the generational change happening across the broader workplace. Coletto says that four or five different generations operating in a workplace has created challenges for unions. “We’re seeing younger generations being more bullish, being more demanding and pushing the bounds,” he says.

Younger people are in the beginning of their careers and usually at the lower end of the pay scale, which is expected, but younger people wanting to start a family, buy a home, or save for retirement, all in the face of more automation or job insecurity are going to feel much differently than someone who is nearing retirement, he says.

“I think that has created more friction within a union…and that spills out into these these public fights where you’ve got a deal at the table, and the members reject it,” Coletto says. “If you’re a union leader, if you’re somebody negotiating on behalf of your union, you just can’t assume you know what your members want.”

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