Five years ago, a new Canadian union was formed, and those present at the founding convention were exhilarated by their vision of a new type of labour organization with a broad social mission.
It was August 31, 2013, when delegates from the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) voted to create Unifor. The two organizations came together during a time when federal politics were staunchly conservative, and when workers faced stagnant wages and growing inequality.
“When our founding unions merged, we made it clear that Unifor would not only focus on negotiating wages and benefits through collective bargaining,” said Naureen Rizvi, one of the founding convention delegates who today serves as Unifor’s Ontario Regional Director.
“We were clear that our new union had to be a union for everyone. Unifor works to improve the lives of all people and the communities where workers and their families live. We also agreed we needed to be a strong political force because politics and government policies affect all aspects of our lives.”
The founding delegates were inspired by a desire to revitalize the mission of unions to fight for a better world for all workers. Today, Unifor has 315,000 members Canada-wide – 167,000 of them in Ontario. Since its creation, the union has organized to welcome more than 20,000 new members at large and small workplaces right across the country.
Scott McIlmoyle – who has been an active Ontario union member for 33 years and is the current chairperson of Unifor’s Ontario Regional Council, was also there when Unifor came into being.
“It was exciting to be at the founding convention, where we agreed to empower the grassroots members and to increase our activism on behalf of workers,” says McIlmoyle, “We committed ourselves to protecting the rights of all workers, unionized or not, and to support social and economic progress for communities.”
As Unifor celebrates its fifth anniversary, the leadership and members, including in Ontario, are celebrating many significant achievements, while also planning how to deal with new and emerging challenges.
Unifor is a bold, activist union; members have mobilized to campaign in one federal and 13 provincial elections. The union campaigns for trade deals that benefit workers through “The People’s Trade” campaign, and through its “I Shop Canada” campaign, it has rallied workers and consumers to fight U.S. tariffs against Canada by buying Canadian products.
In Ontario, one of the standout accomplishments was the passage of the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act (originally Bill 148) in 2017, says Rizvi. “This was one of the most progressive pieces of labour legislation ever passed in Canada,” she says. “We’re very proud of the work we did – participating in the government’s review of changing workplaces two years before the bill was drafted, appearing at every committee hearing on the bill, and rallying our members to sustain pressure by calling and writing to their MPPs several times throughout the debate.”
One of the most hard-fought achievements, she adds, was the inclusion of paid leave for survivors of domestic violence. “The Premier’s office tried to persuade us to put this provision on hold for the future, but we were adamant that it couldn’t wait. Everyone who needs it should have access to this life-saving benefit. We were right down to the wire when they finally agreed.”
The union drove the campaign for paid domestic violence leave by securing paid leave for Unifor members in workplaces across the country, and bargains for strong anti-harassment policies that keep members safe.
McIlmoyle also points to successes for Unifor in Ontario, including at his own place of employment, Bombardier Aerospace, through negotiation of collective agreements that strengthened job security and pensions.
“We’ve achieved a number of contract wins that are helping to keep good manufacturing jobs in Canada, including milestone agreements in the auto industry, which is crucial to Ontario,” he says. McIlmoyle also points to the support that Unifor provided earlier this year to non-unionized employees at Tim Hortons – whose employers were rolling back benefits and paid breaks in reaction to minimum-wage increases.
“Our members took part in a national day of action to let Tim Hortons employees know that we’re behind them – that we’ll fight on their behalf because we want to ensure fairness for all working Canadians.”
Unifor is planning to continue its political activism by mobilizing members for next year’s federal election, as well as elections this fall in Quebec and New Brunswick.
In Ontario, with a new Progressive Conservative (PC) government in power, the union is ramping up advocacy on a range of issues including health care, social services and protection of the workers’ rights members fought so hard for in recent years.
“The challenge for us and everyone in the labour movement is how to preserve the reforms we’ve gained in Ontario,” says Rizvi. “During the campaign, the PCs indicated they wouldn’t go ahead with the planned increase of the minimum wage to $15 next year, and we’re going to do our best to change their minds.
“We will continue to fight on behalf of working people in Ontario and to ensure fairness and social justice for all. Everyone deserves the benefits of being a union member; that’s what Unifor is all about.”