by Megan Devoe
For decades now, Canadian unions have fought to create safe and equitable workplaces for Canada’s workers. Through their work, huge strides have been made to improve the state of employee rights in Canada. Unfortunately, union busting, it seems, has existed for just as long or even longer than these unions themselves.
Union busting, the practice of purposefully deterring or disallowing employees from participating in unions, can come in many seemingly innocuous forms, most of which workers may not be equipped to recognize. Because union busting so often shows up in these covert forms, I wanted to gain a better understanding of these practices.
CUPE 2626, one of Ottawa’s many union locals, represents student workers at the University of Ottawa. Through collective bargaining and non-violent demonstration, they have helped to secure a fairer, more democratic workplace for the hundreds of students that U of O employs. I reached out to CUPE 2626 president Patricia Magazoni Gonçalves in order to get some answers regarding how union busting shows up in the workplace and the red flags workers can look out for when dealing with a potentially anti-union employer. These are her insights regarding the tactics of union busters and the prevalence of union busting in academic environments.
How would you define union busting?
I would define it as a tactic undertaken by the employer or management to undermine the power of union organizing, to prevent employees from joining a union, or to discredit existing unions of which the employees are part. Most of the time, union busting is based on direct attacks on unions or union services, rather than logical arguments supported with valuable evidence.
How would you define covert union busting behaviour?
I would define it as the employer or management using an anti-union rhetoric to pretend they are defending workers’ rights. For instance, an employer saying that belonging to a union is not really necessary because federal and provincial labor law already exists to protect workers’ rights, or saying that the union actually limits the employer’s capacity to offer better employment conditions.
How does covert union busting behaviour show up in the workplace?
One example I can think of is when the employer/management offers unexpected perks like extra breaks, paid lunches, social parties to make employees believe they do not need a union to defend their rights. Covert union busting also happens when the employer misleads the employees into believing that they would be able to better negotiate individually, hiding the fact that employees are the decision-makers in a union environment. Employees are the ones who choose the bargaining agents to represent them, who assign a bargaining mandate and who vote to approve the Collective Agreement. No decision is made without employees’ consent and approval.
A common tactic of union busters is separating and dividing employees so they can’t collectively bargain. Can you give some examples of how that would show up in a workplace?
That maybe happens when the employer/management becomes close to employees in higher positions (who most likely already have some sort of job security or better working conditions) and pit these employees against employees in lower positions (who still need to fight for job security and better working conditions).
Is there specific language or behaviour you would pick up on from employers when looking for anti-union red flags?
[One example of this would be] [t]he employer/management promising they would give salary or benefit increases if they did not have to pay union dues for the employees who belong to an existing union or who would like to join a union.
I’m originally from Brazil and this is a very prominent rhetoric in most of the workplaces there, especially with the new far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. I grew up hearing this rhetoric and I did not realize the power of union organizing and collective bargaining until a few years ago, when I got my first contract as a TA.
How can employees stand up to union busting in their workplace?
Refusing to communicate or negotiate with the employer individually, asking to have a union representative attending the meetings with the employer, mobilizing coworkers.
Your local works with student workers. Do you feel that students have been effectively taught how to pick up on these red flags?
Because some of these red flags also impact workers’ status as students, it seems that student workers are more aware of the union busting rhetoric. To be honest, I haven’t noticed too much of this rhetoric at uOttawa.
In addition to that, do you think that student workers have been effectively taught how to stand up to anti-union behaviour?
I would say that generally, yes. However, I feel that because most of the job positions at uOttawa are contract-based, a lot of student-workers are afraid of standing up or confronting the university. The same applies to international students who, because of their status, are sometimes afraid of confronting the university as well.
CUPE 2626’s relationship with the University of Ottawa is mostly good and steady, and I believe this is a direct result of years of union organization and representation on campus. In other words, this steady relationship would not have been possible without the work of all staff, officers and members of CUPE 2626 who fought for rights and benefits in the past. Yet, there are still some precarious work conditions that student workers face, for instance part-time temporary contracts, uncertainty regarding future employment as a student worker, and increasing tuition fees.
How do you think we as a society can more effectively educate students about collective bargaining and red flags for union busting?
First, I think that we need to reinforce the importance of union representation. Unions usually work to guarantee more than just a fair salary and benefits; they protect workers in case of harassment and discrimination, and make sure the working environment is healthy and safe for all workers. We also need to reinforce that achievements made by one union can impact working conditions in different sectors, and that union solidarity is a powerful tool in fighting for social and economic justice. More importantly, I think we need some education around the fact that the decision-makers in union environments are the members themselves! Decisions are made collectively, through democratic vote, and all members have the right to participate in union events.
Union-busting isn’t always obvious, but we at The Leveller hope this interview has given you some tools to assess the culture and employer motivations in your workplace.
By learning about how and why employers gravitate towards union-busting, workers can collaborate to identify and remove it from their workplace. This type of education — the kind which alerts employees to the realities of anti-union propagation — is essential in creating a democratic and balanced work culture. Without it, those with authority cannot be held responsible, and those without it cannot advocate their rights.