The Nature of Unions


Learning Objectives

  1. Be able to discuss the history of labour unions.
  2. Explain some of the reasons for a decline in union membership over the past sixty years.
  3. Be able to explain the process of unionization and laws that relate to unionization.

A labour union or union, can be broadly defined as workers banding together to meet common goals, such as better pay, benefits, or promotion rules. In Canada, the unionization rate is approximately 32% which remains more than twice that of the United States (14%). In this section, we will discuss the history of unions, reasons for the decline in union membership, union labour laws, and the process employees go through to form a union. First, however, we should discuss some of the reasons why people join unions.

People may feel their economic needs are not being met with their current wages and benefits and believe that a union can help them receive better economic prospects. Fairness in the workplace is another reason why people join unions. They may feel that scheduling, vacation time, transfers, and promotions are not given fairly and feel that a union can help eliminate some of the unfairness associated with these processes. Let’s discuss some basic information about unions before we discuss the unionization process.

History of unions in Canada

Celebrated across the country, Labour Day is often thought of as the last hurrah before the long, hot days of summer give way to the crisp, fading days of autumn. Labour Day, however, is more than just the unofficial end to summer — a fact many Canadians tend to forget. The Labour Day holiday was established to recognize the contribution that ordinary working people have made to the Canadian way of life, said Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress. This includes the right to fair wages, safe working conditions and injury compensation, and equitable labour relations. “Lots of people lost their lives in order to establish the right to refuse unsafe work and the right to be treated fairly and without discrimination,” said Georgetti.

Trade unions developed in Europe during the Industrial Revolution when employees had little skill, and thus the entirety of power was shifted to the employer. When this power shifted, many employees were mistreated and underpaid. In the United States, unionization increased with the building of railroads in the late 1860s. Wages in the railroad industry were low, and the threat of injury or death was high, as was the case in many manufacturing facilities with little or no safety laws and regulations in place. As a result, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and several other brotherhoods (focused on specific tasks only, such as conductors and brakemen) were formed to protect workers’ rights. The following video describes the Canadian experience of the Sleeping Car Porters who entered in collective bargaining in 1945 to improve working conditions.


The Canadian Museum of History offers an interactive timeline of the history of unionization in Canada. – Canadian labour history, 1850-1999 (

Craft unions first arose in Canada in the 1820s; they were made up of a specific trade or skilled workers (e.g. printers, shoemakers, masons, bakers and tailors). The first union action in Canada occurred when the Toronto Typographical Union went out on strike in 1872 when its demands for standardized shorter working days were ignored. The rapid industrialization associated with the first World War led to a rapid growth of the labour movement in the country. The failure and violence of the Winnipeg General Strike (1919) combined with the Depression of the 1930s hurt Canadian unionization until World War II. The post-war era saw union membership soar to four million members in the 1990’s. Part of this growth is related to the unionization of government employees that grew rapidly from 1965 to the present. Today, Canada has a relatively high unionization rate at 31.3 percent in 2020. (Statistics Canada)

Unions have a pyramidal structure much like that of large corporations. At the bottom are locals that serve workers in a particular geographical area. Certain members are designated as stewards to serve as go-betweens in disputes between workers and supervisors. Locals are usually organized into national or regional unions that assist with local contract negotiations, organize new locals, help negotiate contracts, and lobby government bodies on issues of importance to organized labour. In turn, national or regional unions may be linked by a labour federation that provides assistance to member unions and serves as a principal political structure for organized labour. Here are the basic units that compose unions:

  • Local represents workers in their own workplace or town (e.g., Quebec Crane Operator, Local 791G)
  • Parent union decides on union policy for all locals across the province, country or world (e.g., CSN, FTQ)
  • National unions represent union members across the country (e.g. PSA, Unifor).
  • International unions represent union members in more than one country (e.g. UAW, Teamsters).
  • Central labour organizations do not negotiate union contracts but lobby government to pass laws favourable to unions (e.g. Canadian Labour Congress).

Fortune 500 Focus

Perhaps no organization is better known for its antiunion stance than Walmart. Walmart has over 3,800 stores in the United States and over 4,800 internationally with $419 billion in sales4. Walmart employs more than 2 million associates worldwide4. The billions of dollars Walmart earns do not immunize the company to trouble. In 2005, the company’s vice president, Tom Coughlin, was forced to resign after admitting that between $100,000 and $500,000 was spent for undeclared purposes, but it was eventually found that the money was spent to keep the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) out of Walmart (Los Angeles Times Wire Services, 2011) (he was found guilty and sentenced to two years of house arrest).

Other claims surrounding union-busting are the closing of stores, such as the Walmart Tire and Lube Express in Gatineau, Quebec (UFCW Canada, 2011), when discussions of unionization occurred. Other reports of union busting include the accusation that company policy requires store managers to report rumours of unionizing to corporate headquarters. Once the report is made, all labour decisions for that store are handled by the corporate offices instead of the store managers. According to labour unions in the United States, Walmart is willing to work with international labour unions but continues to fiercely oppose unionization in the United States. In one example, after butchers at a Jacksonville, Texas, Walmart voted to unionize, Walmart eliminated all US meat-cutting departments.

A group called OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect), financed by the United Food and Commercial Workers* (UFCW) union, has stemmed from the accusations of union busting. Walmart spokesperson David Tovar says he sees the group as a Trojan horse assembled by labour organizations to lay the groundwork for full-fledged unionization and seek media attention to fulfill their agenda. While the organization’s activities may walk a fine line between legal and illegal union practices under the Taft-Hartley Act, this new group will certainly affect the future of unionization at Walmart in its US stores.

*Note: UFCW was part of the AFL-CIO until 2005 and now is an independent national union.

“Union Members: 2010,” Bureau of Statistics, US Department of Labor, news release, January 21, 2011, accessed April 4, 2011,

2“Teamsters Escalate BMW Protests across America,” PR Newswire, August 2, 2011, accessed August 15, 2011,

3“Federal Judge Orders Employer to Reinstate Three Memphis Warehouse Workers and Stop Threatening Union Supporters While Case Proceeds at NLRB,” Office of Public Affairs, National Labor Relations Board, news release, April 7, 2011, accessed April 7, 2011, and-stop-threatening-un.

4“Investors,” Walmart Corporate, 2011, accessed August 15, 2011,

5“Union Push in For-Profit Higher Ed,” Inside Higher Ed, May 24, 2010, accessed August 15, 2011,


Change to Win website, accessed April 7, 2011,

Federation of European Employers, “Trade Unions across Europe,” accessed April 4, 2011,

Fischer, C., “Why Has Union Membership Declined?” Economist’s View, September 11, 2010, accessed April 11, 2011,

Friedman, G., “Labor Unions in the United States,” Economic History Association, February 2, 2010, accessed April 4, 2011,

Los Angeles Times Wire Services, “Wal-Mart Accused of Unfair Labor Practices,” accessed September 15, 2011,

UFCW Canada, “Want a Union? You’re Fired,” n.d., accessed August 15, 2011,


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