Commentary  To unionize or not to unionize?

Workers thinking about syndicalism should consider benefits

Just a few days before Christmas last year, the Labour Commission announced that 85 per cent of voting non-academic casual workers voted in favour of forming a union, namely the Association of McGill Undergraduate Employees (AMUSE). This marked a historic turning point for the labour movement at McGill. Since 1993, when TA union the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) was formed, no new unions have been organized.

According to Véronique Allard, an organizer from the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union behind AMUSE, 75 per cent of McGill’s casual workers participated in the vote. With such a high turnout, this might well be the most democratic poll in McGill’s history – SSMU and PGSS would be lucky to get 30 per cent of their students to vote in their elections and referenda. Yet the Tribune (“AMUSE vote leaves some students in the dark,” Editorial, January 12) finds it necessary to downplay this achievement by blaming AMUSE for not being able to motivate the other 25 per cent to vote.

Though the Tribune indicates that some of the blame for some students being unaware of the vote might be the Labour Board’s, their focus on AMUSE is wrongheaded. They need to get their facts straight: it was not AMUSE that organized the poll; it was the Labour Board. The mail-in ballot depends on information given by the administration – which actually has every reason to make sure fewer people vote, since each non-vote is taken as a vote against. Yet we should not be surprised by the Tribune’s reporting. It was just another manifestation of the mainstream media’s rampant prejudice against unions.

Now, getting back to the question at hand: to unionize or not to unionize? Common sense tells us that unions are bad for society. However, common sense is often a reflection of the mood of the class that rules the society, i.e., those who wield economic and political power: the bosses. The existence of a union is bad news for the owners. To answer a question with such political importance, we cannot rely on so-called common sense.

Let’s look at some facts. Unionized workers earn more than non-unionized workers in general. According to the Alberta Federation of Labour, full-time unionized labourers earn $20.29 per hour compared to $17.22 for their non-unionized counterparts; part-time union workers earn $17.31 per hour, versus $10.60 for non-unionized ones; 83 per cent of unionized workers are covered by a pension plan, versus 33 per cent of non-unionized workers; and so on. In essence, a union provides the workers with an organization so that they can bargain and fight for better working conditions. You might say: But this is because the workers always go on strike and take the bosses hostage – and sometimes even the public!
Again, let’s look at the facts. According to a study that appeared in the Industrial & Labor Relations Review in 2005, almost 95 per cent of instances of collective bargaining in Ontario in the period of 1984-1992 ended up without a strike. The rate is probably similar today across Canada. Strikes are very special bargaining tools that most workers don’t want to resort to, a tool they are often forced to use by bosses who refuse to negotiate. Members of the media like to exaggerate strike incidents and often speak out against strikes, instead of doing balanced reporting. They thereby create a sense in the public that all unions do is go on strike. The story of successful bargaining without a strike, which is the case more often than not, is never reported.

This semester, invigilators might be forming a union as well. These exam supervisors have been making $10 an hour for the past nine years without any ability to bargain for increased wages that reflect inflation. It is high time they form a union: the administration has proven incapable and unwilling to give the invigilators commensurate compensation for their service.

To unionize or not to unionize? The answer’s so obvious, why ask? We cannot defend our rights unless we organize.

Ted Sprague is the pseudonym of a Master’s student at McGill. You can reach him at