Union organizing drives on rise as COVID-19 drives worker fears

Union organizing drives have spiked at business and industry since the COVID-19 pandemic has struck, a London business conference heard Thursday.

London labour lawyers addressing the Manufacturing Matters conference, held virtually, said

there have been more applications to organize unions in Ontario in the last three months than in the previous three years.

Worries over job losses and health and safety on the job are driving workers to seek representation, conference members heard.

“The last few months have seen a lot of union organizing activity . . . it is remarkable activity,” said Chris Sinal, an employment lawyer at Siskinds.

“I can only speak from my personal experience, but certainly applications are up in London and the surrounding area. We’ve heard from people at the Ontario Labour Relations Board that the increased organizing activity is provincewide, and across a variety of sectors.”

Greater stress on the job for workers as a result of the pandemic has sparked drives, and factors such as some workers getting “pandemic pay” boosts, giving rise to other workers wanting similar consideration, also have played a role, he said.

“Stress levels are rising, they are concerned about their future, concerned about their health and safety, that they be kept safe from COVID,” Sinal said. “It is a stressful environment.”

Some workplaces, specifically in the automotive supply chain, have seen shifts reduced as a direct result of COVID-19, he added.

“Concern about your own health and safety and well-being and financial security are the sorts of factors that give rise to people saying, ‘Maybe a union is something we should be looking at,’ ” he said.

Sinal declined to speculate on how many union drives are ongoing, or applications to certify have been received, in London and area.

While many believe unions stress earning higher wages as a point in organizing, it is more often a matter of “fairness” on the job, added Elizabeth Traynor, also a Siskinds employment lawyer.

The union may stress it can bargain group benefits, better pension or RRSP benefits, health and safety language and employee assistance, she said.

“Unions will say they can offer extras not available in a non-union environment.”

The conference, usually held at the RBC Place London convention centre, was a virtual event with more than 300 attending online, said Kapil Lakhotia, chief executive of London Economic Development Corp., which organized the event.

“Many manufacturers are being challenged by the pandemic and we wanted to provide them with resources, with support,” he said.

Jason Bates, with the Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium, which helped stage the event, agreed manufacturers need discussion on the changes in industry.

“There was good engagement all along in a virtual format. There are a lot of challenges with the pandemic and we tried to provide them with support,” said Bates.

The conference featured a presentation from Aspire Food Group, London’s newest food sector industry, which will open a plant here making protein powder from crickets.

It also featured a presentation on mental health and the workplace in a COVID-19 era. Several breakout sessions were held on a range of business issues.

Candace Miller, senior manager in business development at Fanshawe College, spoke at the conference about skills industry will need from workers. She believes the pandemic has changed workplaces.

Workers will still be needed in areas such as skilled trades, but there may also be growth in digital skills, including cyber-security, virtual reality technology and advanced manufacturing, she added.

There will also be a greater role for “soft skills,” like communications, and analytical skills as business will be “sitting on reams of data,” she said.

“The workplace has changed for the long term. What COVID has done in a good way is have organizations think about how they do things now and how to do it differently. We pivoted so quickly, and it has been truly global, the entire planet. That is significant,” said Miller.

ndebono@postmedia.com

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