Labour forces: The new look of labour in B.C.’s COVID economy

Pandemic and inflation trigger seismic shift in organized labour intensity in B.C. and beyond

A robot waiter newly employed at Richmond’s Happy Lamb Hot Pot Restaurant | Chung Chow

This article is part of BIV's in-depth look at the labour forces shaping work and business in B.C.

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed many aspects of life in North America, and one of the most profound changes may be a resurgence of organized labour.

That is the assessment of several researchers and expert observers, who noted that a hostile legal environment and generally tepid public support over the last three decades have shifted to renewed activity and increased enthusiasm for unionization.

“The tide is turning in favour of workers,” said Mark Thompson, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business organizational behaviour and human resources division. “For the last 30 years, the politics and the economics were against the workers, and they’ve suffered with no increases in real wages.… Then COVID came, and I think people started thinking about their own situations. When people are worried about paying the bills, that’s the most basic quality-of-life issue.”

Labour strife has taken centre stage in B.C. in recent weeks. Besides the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU) holding a two-week strike from mid- to late August to protest what it claims is a lack of movement in contract negotiations with the province, there have been separate labour actions by security screening agents (represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers) and Seaspan’s tugboat crews wreaking havoc on both the Vancouver International Airport and the city’s vital cruise ship sector in the last week of August.

In addition, B.C. is seeing workers organizing in sectors where unionization was improbable just a few years ago. Coffee giant Starbucks (Nasdaq:SBUX), for instance, has seen a number of its B.C. stores join the United Steelworkers (USW).

In the United States, meanwhile, online retail giant Amazon (Nasdaq:AMZN) had its first taste of organized labour action when workers at a Staten Island warehouse voted in April to unionize. Several other Amazon warehouses have since expressed interest in joining the fledgling Amazon Labor Union.

“I think these changes have been building up for a while, and we’ve seen it bubbling up in the last couple of years,” said Mark Leier, professor of history at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and a former negotiator and member of several unions prior to entering academia.

“What’s happened, I think, is that jobs that people had for some time thought would be temporary – let’s say working as a barista or working at Amazon – have now become more or less permanent. The economy is not creating a lot of good job in the same way it used to. So that tends to make people think, ‘If this is going to be my job for the foreseeable future, I’m going to make it better.’”

In that sense, increased unionization campaigns from service workers in the private sector may be a more telling sign than widespread public sector job action, Leier noted. It indicates, he said, that “a new generation of workers have their own take on things – and are prepared to take the risk” of participating in union organizing drives.

Leier also noted that the widening economic gap between top executives and rank-and-file workers is another cause for labour discontent, while the current spike in inflation sparked the increase in organized labour activity.

Organized labour had been largely seen as stagnating since the 1980s, when union membership steadily declined with the introduction of foreign-produced goods along with laws (in Canada and elsewhere) making collective bargaining more difficult, observers say.

But for Scott Lunny, union membership has held steady even during the supposed lean years – to the point where workers in new sectors now have groups to turn to if they want to unionize and fight for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

Lunny has a front-row seat in that fight. He is the director of USW’s District 3, which covers the four western Canadian provinces and three territories. It is also the union that is representing and assisting with the unionization efforts of Starbucks workers in B.C. The union currently represents workers from three B.C. Starbucks (in Surrey, Langley and Victoria) plus one more store in Alberta.

In addition, Lunny said District 3 has workers at seven more Starbucks stores waiting for certification votes to be held or counted and up to 12 more throughout B.C. and Alberta where employees have expressed interest in unionizing.

Companies, however, have not sat idly by in response to unionization campaigns or labour actions. 

In May, the USW alleged that Starbucks retaliated by not extending wage increases to unionized stores that were given to staff at other outlets.

In the case of as many as 143 Vancouver International Airport security screeners calling in sick on the August 27-28 weekend, airport officials have said those who took part in the job action will face discipline and organizers will be fired.

“We see that from all employers, and in that respect, I don’t think Starbucks is any different than any other large multinational corporations in terms of their views towards unions,” Lunny said. “So we tell all our members and prospective members the truth: It’s not easy. The companies will fight back. But if we stick together, we will get through it.… Some companies learn it easier than others, but the best way to be successful when your workforce is unionized is to engage them in good faith.

“In the long run, that can be a competitive advantage for you [as a company].”

Do the rising voices of unionization and companies holding their lines during a time where inflation is cutting into everyone’s pocketbooks mean that we are entering a new era of labour strife? 

Leier is hesitant to label it as such today.

But the SFU professor added that the next few months might provide the answer to whether a new age of organized labour is upon us.

“I’m a historian, so my first answer to that question would be to come back and ask me in 10 years,” Leier said. “But I will say this. If we look historically, it does tend to happen in waves in part because people would first say, ‘Why would I strike? It’s tough, and it’s hard.’ But then they see someone else go on strike and get a better deal, and they then think, ‘Maybe we should do that.’

“So, I think much will depend on how the upcoming and the ongoing strike actions work out.… At Amazon and Starbucks, the unionized workers are losing some battles, but they are also winning some really important battles. And those wins are inspiring to people; people learn good lessons from those.