Why isn’t there more tech unionization in Canada?
*BTW I don’t definitively answer this, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Why do you think there aren’t more visible efforts to organize non-standard workers in Canada?
Here’s why I’m wondering:
The UK Supreme Court recently ruled that Uber drivers have “worker” rights. Italy ruled that delivery workers at four major companies are employees, and now companies need to pay €733 million in fines or face criminal charges. Amsterdam made a similar ruling on employee status (in February 2021), and Spain is preparing legislation to the same effect.
🦗 Canada? Crickets. Changing labour laws to stop worker misclassification does not seem to be on the agenda ever since Foodora couriers were deemed eligible to unionize by the Ontario Labour Relations Board (and then the company literally left Canada, lol) last year.
This work takes place amidst a “moment” of sorts for organizing technology workers. In January, the Alphabet Workers Union (the “Google union”) was announced. It is part of the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees, an effort to organize unions at tech companies, and affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, a larger trade union. Canadians that work for Google are able to join, so the geography isn’t exclusive. There’s also the non-profit Gig Workers Collective, which has made headlines organizing Instacart workers in the US.
Last year, in February of 2020, Kickstarter United launched - making it the first tech company to unionize. There have been allegations that Amazon is deterring unionizing efforts and McDonald’s Secretive Intel Team Spies on ‘Fight for $15’ Workers, Internal Documents Show.
These initiatives are all related to the regulation of precarious work, but responses differ depending on how the work is organized.
🇨🇦 So, what’s the deal in Canada?
Theories on why there isn’t more [visible?] tech organizing in Canada:
Maybe there is, but it’s quiet - so that the firms do not notice ahead of substantive collective action. It’s totally possible that this is difficult for me to “see,” given that I’m disconnected from the work and relying on the internet to learn. Canada’s geography could play a role as well.
Maybe there is, but it’s not being covered in the media - this is a media capacity problem, as highly localized coverage is rare. Frankly, Canada has fewer people to cover these issues. Alongside Sara Mojtehedzadeh at the Toronto Star, a few dedicated publications are contenders, like: Briar Patch, Rabble, and Rank and File.
Maybe Canada’s strong public health and education systems implicitly disincentivize unionization. Simply getting injured isn’t as big of a financial penalty, but if they can’t work they’ll still miss out on wages.
Maybe this is a time and capacity issue. There may be so much energy focussed on earning enough in the day-to-day that it’s difficult to have time to focus on organizing or even think long-term about improving conditions on the job.
Maybe this is a turnover issue. Staff that take on these jobs may only engage with Instacart or Uber (etc) for a short period of time, creating less affinity to participate in organizing efforts.
Maybe it’s just because we are a net tech importer; prone to follow. When it comes to technology, the Canadian school of policy has typically been one of “copy and paste.” So, why aren’t these efforts spilling over? Are we waiting to learn more from efforts taking place elsewhere? And who is the “we” - do we lack leadership, are pre-existing unions taking the lead over self-organized initiatives?
*Earlier I said it was crickets when it came to unionization efforts in Canada. That’s not entirely true - there’s activity, but it’s a highly localized patchwork.
Union drives are sweeping Indigo stores in Ontario. This is fascinating as it has been initiated in the pandemic;
In Newfoundland and Labrador, Dominion workers had a 12-week strike last fall. In recent years, the company had cut full-time positions and turned people into part-time workers so that they could offer less benefits. Unionizing could have created a domino effect for Loblaw-owned grocery stores;
CUPE Local 2361 is working with Uber workers, and they have had some decisions at the Ontario Labour Board;
Most notably, some gig workers have been gaming the algorithm(s) that govern their work.
What are the Canadian technology companies best poised to unionize? While it hardly matters whether a company is Canadian or not when it comes to unionization pressures, I think it’s worth thinking about what kind of initiatives could originate in Canada as they’d be specific to the company.
Skip the Dishes - though delivery workers keep 100% of their delivery fees and tips and get paid weekly;
Ritual - restaurants could revolt at the commission;
Tim Hortons - quintessentially Canadian and wholesome, Tim’s is also an instance of service work increasingly governed by algorithms.
Unionization efforts wouldn’t need to be limited to gig workers - we have white collar tech here, too. These workers could organize around the mistreatment of contracted gig workers, or oppose defence contracting (as one Hootsuite worker recently did with ICE). It’s not clear whether or how any Canadian technology companies are working with CSIS or CBSA.
This matters because: “Prop 22” could be coming to Canada.
This would come in a context of serious social assistance reform in Canada. It remains to be seen whether benefits modernization reinforces the fracturing of work via portability.
What could people unionize around:
The right to unionize;
A living wage;
Better health and safety;
The usual benefits that come with employee status;
Paid sick days;
Resisting algorithmically-governed work;
Gig workers in Canada are governed by the same algorithms and subject to the same challenges that are motivating organizing in other jurisdictions. It is a failure of sorts that Canada can’t claim the same collective action efforts of platform workers given the progress around the world.
Our policy and working environment is not superior enough to warrant this comparative silence.
Vass Bednar is the Executive Director of McMaster University’s new Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program.