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Community Unionism

A new organizing model gives non-union workers a chance to engage and organize.


At Unifor’s founding BC regional Council, a speaker stood up at the mic and shared an idea. As a member of the Vancouver-based Local 3000, representing workers at various White Spot locations and elsewhere in the service industry, the speaker shared thoughts about how to reach out to non-union restaurant workers and to engage them with the union, its services, and its knowledge.

Restaurant workers exemplify what precarious work is all about: many of them are young, but not exclusively; they work irregular shifts, have dodgy contracts at best, and certainly don’t have any backup if they have problems getting paid or issues with their boss.

The challenge is that the restaurant industry is one where the turnover is very high: workers often move from one restaurant to another. It is one of the reasons, amongst many others, why the industry is a challenge to organize in the traditional sense.

The local’s idea would allow workers at different restaurants throughout the city to organize a unit in which they could share experiences, articulate common issues and offer each other support. This would allow workers to stay connected to the union even if they change workplaces every so often. it would allow for some support where they may not have had any beforehand.

This is exactly the kind of project that Unifor is hoping to build through its community chapters. Like any organizing projects, these ideas take time to develop and the local will be strategizing the way forward on getting this chapter started in the coming weeks and months.

Although they are still a new model, Unifor’s community chapters have a lot of potential. The concept came out of the rigorous process undertaken by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union (CEP) and the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) part of creating the blueprint of Unifor. Several working groups were struck to look at all aspects of how the union would operate to serve the best interest of members, one of which was dedicated to organizing. Its premise: given the changing nature of work in Canada, how should the nature of organizing match up?

What came from it was a renewed commitment to organizing, which was endorsed by the membership during the unifor founding convention. The commitment was partly on monetary terms, with 10 per cent of the union’s total budget going to organizing. The commitment was also on principle: to adapt the union’s traditional organizing ways to reach out to new groups of workers.

By “new groups of workers,” the union is referring to the increasing number of people working in what can be qualified as the new working conditions in Canada: contract, freelance, part-time, low-waged and shift work, as well as unemployed people, student-workers and others who find themselves in a situation where they could not get a collective agreement, even if they would like to.

The community chapters model was developed as a unique concept. There are similar “associate membership” programmes in some unions in Europe, but they cannot be compared given the differences to the labour relations frameworks that we have here. in the united States, the AFL-CIO has also had discussions about how to bring non-union workers into the fold.

The project is being received by members as one that recognizes that a union’s role is to represent all working people, not just those already represented by the union. Many local unions are starting to reach out to groups of workers in their sector or region who could benefit from being members of the union.

In November, the union recognized its first two community chapters: the Canadian Freelance union for freelancers in the media sector, and Unifaith, representing workers at the united Church. These two chapters are national in scope.

Both these groups aim to protect the interests of workers in their community, and both groups have a history of working with predecessor unions. Currently, they are beating the path and helping to shape how the community chapters model will help people to organize their community of workers by working through Unifor.

As the program evolves, it is likely that more new community chapters will be associated with local unions. A group of people who have something in common, be it their workplace, working conditions or a common interest, will be able to form a chapter by becoming members of a local union.

The Unifor local union, with its existing infrastructure, membership and facilities, will be able to lend a hand to their chapter and support them in ways that they do with many other groups in their community. in some cases, the local union will be able to offer meeting space, which for many groups in urban areas is a prized organizing resource. Other local unions will be able to help chapters with training, or to connect them with the broader membership in order to support their goals.

For community chapter members, it means pooling resources and paying a monthly due of $10/ month or $5/month for unwaged people. Those dues are collected by the union, but are not retained by the union. They are returned to the community chapter to help reach their goals.

Pooling resources, setting common targets and organizing communities are not actions to be taken for granted. Many workers who have never engaged with a union will not relate the same way to the importance of working together and having a structure that can defend our common interest. To provide people with an ability to build a union-like type of structure by which they can organize themselves is to strive to engage people in that process, by extension making it a learning opportunity. Whether it is to demand basic recognition at work, to break down the isolation that exists between self-employed workers, to call for an increase to the minimum wage or to help each other out in their workplaces, workers have in the community chapters a tool that can help them advance together.

In the case of the project mentioned above in which a community chapter could represent workers at various restaurants, it’s about providing people with a way to directly engage with the union. Getting experiences organizing the people around us, getting them to support a cause, signing up to be a member and striving to achieve gains for the group are invaluable lessons in unionism, lessons that more people should be given the opportunity to receive.

More information about Unifor community chapters and resources on how to start your own can be found at Roxanne Dubois is a staff member of Unifor. Roxanne is also former chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students.

This article appeared in the Ukraine and the rebirth of fascism issue of Canadian Dimension .


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