Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Research: Urban and industrial: The structural challenges of rural engagement for Alberta unions

Urban and industrial: The structural challenges of rural engagement for Alberta unions Bob Barnetson, Athabasca University
Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies Conference, Calgary, June 2

What I’d like to talk about today is the distribution of unionized workers in Alberta, with particular attention to the low levels of unionization in rural Alberta. As far as I can tell, there is little written about unionization in rural settings and nothing written about it in Alberta.

One of the challenges of looking at unionization in rural Alberta is that there is no hard and fast definition of what is rural. Like most prairie provinces, Alberta has a small number of cities—seven—that serve as political, cultural and economic hubs.

Edmonton and Calgary are the two largest cities at about a million people. The other five cities have populations of sixty to a hundred thousand. Overall, 62% of the population lives in those seven urban locations. So, for the purposes of this study, rural workers are those whose work outside of the seven largest cities. And, in these slides, green represents urban numbers while yellow represents rural.

Unionized Worker Locations
When I started looking into this, I found a 2015 provincial government database of 1228 collective agreements that identified their main place of business. With some help from three large unions, I was able to “place” almost 316,000 unionized workers, which represents 72% of all workers unionized under the provincial jurisdiction. The biggest group of unionized workers I couldn’t place were construction workers. This reflects that these workers tend to have transitory and mobile employment arrangements.

The preliminary results of this geographic analysis weren’t particularly surprising. Unionization in Alberta is a heavily urban phenomenon. More than three quarters of unionized workers are located in Alberta’s seven urban centres. 

The most notable point here is that the percentage of unionized workers who work in urban settings appear to be disproportionately high when compared to the overall population distribution. Specifically, 62% of the population lives in an urban centre but 77% of unionized workers work in one. The converse, of course, is true about rural areas.

I could neither find nor manufacture labour force data by municipality so it isn’t possible to calculate a traditional measure of union density. It is, however, possible to determine the percentage of a municipality’s population (i.e., workers plus non-workers) who are unionized and, thereby, assess relative differences in union density between urban and rural locations.

Approximately 9.4% of all urban residents were union members. By contrast, only 4.5% of all rural residents were union members. If you disaggregate the rural numbers into municipalities or groups of municipalities, you find that 12 rural locales have at least 1000 unionized workers. 

Looking at these clusters of rural unionism, the most striking things is that public-sector workers comprise the vast majority of unionized workers in rural Alberta. There are five instances of a significant number of unionized rural workers in the private sector. These workers tend to be employed in a small number of large, industrial operations—businesses like meat-packing, refineries, mills, mines, and hotels.

So why is unionism in Alberta disproportionately urban? I didn’t find much in the literature that was helpful. Some possibilities are the distribution of jobs (particularly jobs in large, industrial workplaces), the legal structure of labour relations, the cost of organizing and servicing rural units, and, perhaps, an anti-union culture in rural locations. I decided to interview 10 trade union organizers and labour relations officers to see what their views were.

The informants identified three inter-related factors to explain low union density in rural Alberta: 
  1. reluctance by rural workers to unionize,
  2. reluctance by unions to organize small bargaining units, and 
  3. a regulatory structure that impedes organizing and servicing. 
So let’s start with rural workers. Informants suggested that rural workers may perceive unionization as a less effective way to improve their lot in life than other strategies available to them. The social norms of rural communities were said to be profoundly shaped by chambers of commerce, churches, rotary clubs, and long-time residents—groups that often have interlocking memberships. This creates a cultural and social hegemony that suggests workers are more likely to advance by working hard and being canny businesspeople than through social solidarity with other workers.

Respondents had differing explanations for why unions were generally thought undesirable by rural opinion leaders. Some suggested that the agricultural background of many rural residents meant they rejected the regulation of employment relationships. Other pointed to long-standing anti-union positions among various religious sects as well as the upstream oil-and-gas industry. And, finally, some informants suggested economic self-interest: opinion leaders are most often employers themselves who likely don’t want a union in their workplaces.

While valorizing individualistic behaviours is obviously not confined to rural communities, the small size of rural communities was said to limit the social space available to develop other narratives. And the idea of “space” also came up in terms of there being less social space in a rural community for dissension and conflict to play out because of fewer job opportunities (which heightened the economic risks associated with union activity), less personal privacy, and greater integration of work and social lives than is typical in urban environments:

…[Y]ou are dealing with the same 15 to 20 guys day in and day out. If you are working an 8 hour shift, that is half of your waking life. And you are going to run into these guys in the grocery store and the [bar] and it is your life. These small units are… a lot more impervious to organizing because you can’t have every facet of your life in open conflict with your employer for very long before you go nuts. In a city, you can escape it.
Workers who are dissatisfied also often have exit options due to Alberta’s traditionally buoyant oil-economy.

Despite these barriers to unionizing in rural Alberta, there are countervailing factors. For example, existing social networks allow rapid organizing because everyone knows everyone else. Further, once a worksite is organized, rural interconnectedness and interdependence can result in significant community support for workers during labour disputes.

Informants also suggested unions were reluctant to organize small bargaining units. Although small bargaining units exist everywhere, informants noted that potential rural units were almost always small units. There was broad consensus that units of fewer than 50 workers represented very marginal targets for organizing.

Small units were said to be more difficult to organize than larger units because workers tend to have a close relationship with their employer. And employers are more likely and better able to manage the workforce in a small operation to keep unions out. Some informants suggested that many unions’ disinterest in rural organizing is also about unions’ (predominantly urban) office locations and urban population density.

Most informants noted that small units have less bargaining power, which also made them less attractive targets for organizing. Specifically, informants questioned the ability of a small group of workers to extract a meaningful collective agreement from a (usually) small employer, who may have limited capacity to absorb an increase in labour costs. Once organized, small units can also be resource intensive to operate and sometimes are unable to manage their own day-to-day affairs.

Some informants indicated that the desirability of a unit can be shaped by whether or not the union already had a bargaining relationship with the employer. That can give the union a better sense of the employer’s approach as well as leverage:
There may be 10 people. But with that same employer elsewhere, we have thousands of their workers. It gives me a better chance to keep the employer nice. ‘Are you so stuck on 20 people that you want to jeopardize [labour relations with] the other thousand?’
All informants indicated that Alberta’s labour laws—which make union organizing and collective bargaining difficult—intensified unions’ reluctance to organize small units. The specific weaknesses of Alberta labour law include requiring a vote before certifying a unit, having no meaningful remedy available when an employer interferes in an organizing drive, and having no access to first contract arbitration.

Of particular note was the absence of automatic certification when employers interfere with an organizing campaign:

[T]he typical [Labour Relations Board] decision is, at best, a slap on the hand and there is no real remedy. It can make people go… ‘If the union can’t stop the employer from doing something during a drive, how are they going to stick up for me on the job?’
Some informants noted that workers with precarious legal status (such as temporary foreign workers) were particularly vulnerable to employer pressure.

The initial findings of my research suggest that unionization in Alberta is predominantly urban, industrial, and public. Most unionized workers—and a disproportionate percentage of them—work in Alberta’s seven large urban centres. Most unionized workers—particularly in rural Alberta—are employed by large organizations operating on an industrial model. And most unionized workers—again, particularly in rural Alberta—are employed providing public services.

Trade unionists attribute this state of affairs to reluctance by rural workers to be organized, reluctance by unions or organize small units, and a regulatory structure that impedes organizing. Although the analysis isn’t completed yet, my sense is that the evidence is taking us toward the conclusion that the distribution of unions reflects the distribution of industrialized workplaces.

The next—and probably more interesting—research step would be to compare these explanations for low levels of unionization to those of workers—both in rural and urban Alberta—to see the degree to which they match up.

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