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The Role of Unions: Barriers and Opportunities Essay


Similar to other countries, the Canadian labor market is deeply influenced by the processes and tendencies that take place all over the world at the moment, and unions are one of the indicators that help get an insight into the current state of affairs and design corresponding strategies to deal with workers. As a controversial issue, the existence of unions is frequently associated with both positive and negative phenomena: although unions are intended to improve the economic position of at least some of the exploited and protect them, they are regularly accused of egalitarianism, union dues that workers have to pay, and ineffectiveness (Pupo, Glenday, & Duffy, 2011, p. 38).

Moreover, the modern economy imposes the requirements that differ from those of the past, and unions should comply with them. In this paper, the brief history of the Canadian labor unions, their current activities, the barriers in organizing, and the possible solutions are examined in order to understand the role of contemporary unions.

The History of Unions

Discussing the role unions play in Canada now, one cannot but mention the historical background since the present-day situation is the result of the development of the pioneer organizations. The early unions developing in the middle of the 19th century won the right to form legal organizations that would guarantee respect for the workers’ rights.

Winnipeg General Strike became one of the most critical events of the 20th century: the right to bargain collectively and higher wage rates were discussed; one can state that the overall results were positive, even though some leaders were arrested, and other significant events aimed at the improvement of workers’ position, such as the Canadian Labour Congress establishment of the Royal Commission on Status of Women, followed (Krahn, Hughes, & Lowe, 2014, p. 40). To put it shortly, the history of the Canadian unions is notable for the considerable changes pertaining to workers’ rights and social justice.

However, the 1980s brought far-reaching changes: the rise of the neoliberal tendencies and the more aggressive and business-oriented priorities led to the unions decline. The union density – the degree of the Canadian workforce involvement in unions – fell, and this process still takes place. This index was more than 37% in 1981, and today, it equals only 30% (Pupo et al., 2011, p. 48). The most dramatic changes connected with these events refer to the lack of new members in unions and higher rates of unemployment. Thus, due to the shift of the state approach, the labor unions are weaker than they used to be.

The Issues that the Present-Day Labour Unions Target

In spite of the unfavorable conditions that the Canadian labor unions have to face today, one can see that they persevere in their attempts to address the most burning issues. While some of their activities are connected with what labor unions are normally expected to do, the range of problems raised within such organizations becomes more extensive. It is probably one of the signals that unions will not only survive but also revive and rise in their status.

First and foremost, workplace justice remains a matter of labor unions’ concern. Because the alarming income inequality rates and increase in precarious work became matters of paramount importance, the unions could not ignore them: what they decided to do was to launch a specific campaign which was called “$15 and Fairness” (Cartwright, 2016, para. 3). The community-labor coalitions in North America took part in this campaign aimed at the minimum wage increase in order to obtain work justice.

It is becoming obvious that reforms initiated by labor unions are to result in positive changes. To leave poverty and low wages behind, it is significant to encourage the process of unionization: the population’s financial health, wellbeing, and employment terms depend on the actions of unions directly. It is explained by the fact that unions protect the rights of workers and make the government and the authorities respect them.

Apart from the workers’ rights considerations, the Canadian unions are known as green activists: having understood the hard truth of the slogan “There are no jobs on a dead planet,” they draw attention to nature and problems associated with it, for instance, climate change and greenhouse gas emissions (Cartwright, 2016, para. 7). It is emphasized that carbon reduction is one of the elements of the formula for success. In other words, labor is examined not only as a vital component of people’s lives but also through the lens of the natural environment protection, and the role of labor unions is to promote green technologies and encourage eco-friendly approaches towards the organization of labor.

The third area of activity of the Canadian labor unions refers to the difficult issues of race and prejudice which are especially relevant today – the example of cooperation with Muslim neighbors is telling since the modern Islamophobia poses threat to peaceful relationships and violates human rights (Cartwright, 2016, para. 10). In fact, there are still many problems connected with diversity, inclusion, and workers’ education. Therefore, the help of unions will become useful when they become stronger and more organized.

Overall, the roles of the Canadian labor unions are multiple. They are the advocates of workers since they seek for better working conditions for every person. Further, they are green activists protecting nature and taking preventive measures in order to make improvements to the environmental setting. Finally, they are the guarantors of equality because they focus on bias issues.

Barriers and Future Opportunities

In the context of the modern economy, there are several barriers pertaining to organizing and possible solutions that can hardly become a panacea, but the effect, nevertheless, is likely to be powerful. The most pressing problem is the switch to neoliberalism that took place in the 1980s. Because the favorable conditions for businesses are the focus of the new approach, labor unions are not the main concern of the government; as a result, such organizations lose their influence.

Only public sector unions are reportedly more insulated from fierce competition, but the environment is still far from being perfect (Pupo et al., 2011, p. 51). Although it is impossible to change the policies quickly, it is important to speak up and demonstrate that workers are going to protect their rights. Therefore, the existing unions and the new ones should overcome the smaller barriers and take part in public life in order to solve the most serious problem.

While neoliberalism may be considered the core reason for the long-term weakening of labor unions, there are some other factors related to this process. One of them is a huge material and knowledge gap between workers and the authorities. Workers are isolated from the information concerning the ways of union administration, and they cannot afford training. Thus, one has to deal with the never-ending circle. Under these circumstances, it seems that it is necessary to attract more people, and such unions may provide several activists with training – after a while, more competent specialists will be able to teach their colleagues.

The next problem, the low levels of unionization, is connected with the previous group in terms of the number of workers in unions. People fail to see how unions can improve the quality of working conditions and guarantee the observance of their rights. To improve the situation, it is essential to address the distance between workers and unions via various media. The plans and achievements should be open and known to the public.

Finally, the government may impose obstacles. Arguments, pressure, documents difficulties, and inaction may occur. Again, organized unions have objectively more chances to reach their goal since such large stakeholders cannot be ignored. It may be recommended to act in a corresponding way within labor unions.


Overall, the status of the Canadian unions has changed due to the influence of neoliberalism: they not only have weakened recently but also dealt with other problems. However, the slight positive changes also take place, and one of them pertains to the different roles of unions, namely workplace justice, ecology, and equality. It is highly probable that union membership will become a must in the nearest future, and the organizations will learn how to balance the clients’ and state interests. Education and information are to become the most important areas, and the workers’ rights will be protected.


Cartwright, J. (2016). . Huffington Post. Web.

Krahn, H., Hughes, K. D., & Lowe, G. S. (2014). Work, industry, and Canadian society (7th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson College Indigenous.

Pupo, N., Glenday, D., & Duffy, A. (2011). The shifting landscape of work. Toronto, ON: Nelson College Indigenous.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "The Role of Unions: Barriers and Opportunities." October 6, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-role-of-unions-barriers-and-opportunities/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'The Role of Unions: Barriers and Opportunities'. 6 October.

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