Everything you needed to know about unions

Perspectives from an Alberta retail grocery worker 


By Catherine Eden and Michael Hughes
January 15, 2020

With employers and governments pushing workers to the brink, unions and their members are often in the news and social media. In Alberta, nearly 15,000 unionized grocery workers will be in negotiations with their employers this year, while a new government has begun an open attack on unions generally, but particularly in the public sector. Things are about to pop off in our province.

For a lot of people, union members included, a union can seem like nothing more than a mysterious person in an office on the other side of town. We want to show you that a union is about much more than that.

As our union gets ready to fight for what may be the fight of our lives, there is no better time than now to be clear about what we’re all about.

What is a union and how does it work?

There really shouldn’t be so much mystery around unions. With a few notable exceptions, most workers in Canada have the right to join a union, a right protected by labour laws.

Some people tend to think of unions as insurance companies. They aren’t.

Unions have been around for years, and many of the rights we enjoy in Canada today are the results of struggles fought by workers using their unions as vehicles for change. This includes things like the eight-hour workday, improvements to minimum wages, and paid maternity leave. When did an insurance company ever push for these kinds of things?

A union is an organization made up of workers dedicated to improving things like wages, hours, and working conditions by getting a company (or companies) to agree on how those things are going to be for employees, solidified through a union contract, also known as a “collective agreement.”

UFCW Local 401 President Tom Hesse addresses Sobeys during contract talks

Unions tend to fight for things like better scheduling rules, health benefits, including dental care and prescription drug benefits, pensions, and of course, wages. On all those fronts, a union will typically fight as much as its members are willing to fight.

A union often has staff that deal directly with a company to negotiate better rights and ensure the company is living up to the contract it agreed to. Sounds straight forward, right? The reality is that companies don’t always want to keep their promises to employees.

Without a strong and united membership that knows what it wants, a union has a hard time getting improvements from employers. It’s like going to battle without your troops, and not even knowing where the battlefield is located.

A union wins improvements by pressuring employers with the law, but labour laws, especially in Alberta, aren’t exactly worker- or union-friendly. They’re often designed to regulate what workers can and cannot do.

Because of that, by far the most effective way to get an employer to listen is to get organized. That means workers getting together and standing up for themselves with the support of their union behind them.

When talking at the bargaining table doesn’t work, of course, we can threaten to collectively not show up to work. This is called a strike, and it is our legal right as union members, which we decide to do as a union after a membership vote.

While striking is relatively rare and largely considered a last resort by unions, it can help to get an employer to take the concerns of union members seriously and ultimately give in to their demands.

When people hear the word “union,” they often immediately think “union dues.” Here’s the thing about that: our union is funded entirely by union dues and fees paid by its members. There is no funding from external sources, like governments or companies. That means the members own their union, and they influence its direction by actively participating in it.

Union dues pay for union staff, who help to enforce and administer our union contracts, labour lawyers, specialists in workers’ compensation matters, communications, and organizing, and things like offices and training facilities. They also provide the independence needed to fight for the things we need.

Our dues pay into things like strike funds to help support members should they ever need to take job action to defend or improve their working conditions. Taking on big employers like the ones we deal with can’t be done effectively for free.

What unions want

Unions are the only kind of organization in Canada that can legally force a company to negotiate with its employees in a formal way. This process is called “collective bargaining.”

Sure, anyone can walk into their manager’s office and ask for a raise. But with a union, that process is formalized and includes legal protections.

Collective bargaining means that the company has to come to the table and has the duty to negotiate with our union in good faith. Also, a union member can’t be discriminated against, disciplined, or fired by a company for supporting or participating in their union.

Collective bargaining is widely regarded as one of the most essential democratic institutions, largely because it impacts people on a daily basis: in their workplaces. Without unions, workplaces are basically mini feudal kingdoms. If you don’t believe this, see what happens when you tell a difficult manager “no.”

A union member surveys another member during a store visit with union staff

Then there are wages. On average, unionized workers tend to earn 23% more than non-union workers doing the same job. Unions also promote greater equity among workers by insisting rules be applied to everyone equally.

More union jobs for working people is good for the economy, too. Keep in mind that money in the pockets of workers is money typically spent in the local economy, not stashed away in some offshore tax haven designed for the super-rich.

When working class people earn more, they are able to spend more, and the things they tend to buy, like groceries, support local economies, which in turn, have a better chance of thriving. The union wage difference has been calculated as having a value to the Canadian economy of more than $793 million per week.

But unions aren’t just about creating a level playing field for workers versus their employers. They are also about pushing for things that matter for average people generally.

Our union, UFCW Local 401, has been at the forefront of legal challenges that protect workers’ freedom of expression and further enshrine their labour rights. That’s dues money well spent.

Nationally, our union has also fought for better rights and protections for migrant workers and farm labourers, some of the most vulnerable workers in Canada, insisting that workers brought to Canada to work should have the same rights as all Canadian workers. These efforts raise the bar for everyone.

We also advocate for causes like the banning of BPA and BPS receipt paper that has been shown to cause cancer and other major health problems for retail workers. Through the Canadian Labour Congress, our union is fighting for a national pharmacare program, so people don’t go without medications they need for lack of money.

Our union’s advocacy work benefits all working Canadians, whether they are union members or not.

That’s why some politicians closely connected to employers are working hard to stop unions from being able to advocate for causes that might impede their profits.

Safeway members publicly advocate for what they call a “good grocery” store for Alberta grocery workers

Do we need unions today?

In current contract talks with employers, we’ve seen companies act without any sense of empathy for the people who work for them. They often seek to take away the wages, benefits, and conditions that people might have fought for over many years.

Regularly, employers are bent on making our jobs less secure, and they consider their bottom line before anything else. Without a union, a company can basically do what it wants on anything, from scheduling hours to what you are paid. There are no contract talks.

But people are looking to unions like ours to help them fight back against precarious work, and we’re there, front and centre.

Just this week, our national union has applied for the right to represent Uber drivers in Toronto, helping those workers find voices that will challenge a company that treats them like employees but won’t actually recognize them as such. This also challenges the Uber model of employment, which many other employers would love to try so as to circumvent labour laws. How long before there is an App controlling retail workers’ livelihoods?

Faced with working conditions that offer virtually no job security, young workers are seeing unions as a way to push for the life and job prospects enjoyed by older generations. In the US, for example, the Center for Economic and Policy Research reported that, in 2017, more than 75% of new union members were under the age of 35. In that regard, unions are heading for a renaissance, and we need them to be strong.

The goal of improving the lives of working people is a timeless pursuit spanning generations and even more relevant as we face the challenges of a new economy.

Unions are here to stay, especially if we come to realize that “the union” is really each and every one of us working to stand up for each other.



About the Authors


Catherine Eden works in the Deli department of a Safeway store in Edmonton, Alberta, and is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401. Catherine got involved in her union after she and a fellow member had a problem with their employer over a pay issue. Making a long story (very) short, she’s now a shop steward and serves on the UFCW Local 401 Safeway bargaining committee, a group of nearly 30 Safeway employees trying to negotiate a new contract with Sobeys, the multi-billion-dollar company that now owns Alberta’s 75 Safeway stores.

Michael Hughes is a staff member and representative with UFCW Local 401. He was one of the mysterious people who came to Catherine’s store to help her with her pay issue back in 2016. While this article was Catherine’s idea, he helped her write it.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401 is Alberta’s largest private-sector union with 32,000 members working in diverse industries such as retail, food processing, beverage production, hospitality, gaming, and education. We are part of the 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, representing working people across North America.

In contract talks with Sobeys, UFCW Local 401 has practiced open bargaining, sharing transparent updates with members and inviting all members to attend and see the process for themselves. Here’s what’s been happening at negotiations over the past while.