Auto sector jobs are largely good jobs. Auto assembly workers in Canada, for instance, earn wages approximately 30 per cent above the national average for all workers.51 These above-average wages as well as access to additional group insurance, pensions, income maintenance programs and other benefits, are a result of collective bargaining advanced over decades by Unifor. These “union benefits” are so well established in the auto industry that all automakers, including Toyota and Honda, neither of which are yet certified as a union shop, provide comparable benefits. Non-union benefits, of course, come without the added value of union representation for workers. The positive effects of unionization have positioned the auto sector as a driver of good middle-income jobs generating significant spillover economic benefits for families, neighborhoods and communities. In 2019, for instance, autoworkers’ wages contributed $8.7 billion to the broader economy.52
Frustratingly, rigid and imbalanced labour laws deny far too many workers the benefits of unionization. This phenomenon is as true in Canada as it is in jurisdictions around the world. Despite high levels of union density in auto assembly, where roughly two thirds of workers have collective bargaining coverage, unionization rates are lower among smaller supplier parts firms, approximately half the rate of the assembly sector, as well as in distribution, services and dealerships. Overall, private sector union density in Canada today hovers around 15 per cent of the workforce, falling from nearly 30 per cent in the early 1980s.53 Automakers, like other multinational enterprises, continue to take advantage of global trade agreements and expanded global supply chains to source goods from low-cost, non-union jurisdictions. Growing global competition for product mandates creates a more vicious environment that puts downward pressure on labour rights.
Changing course requires all levels of government to advocate actively for unionization and establish laws that improve workers’ access to unions and free collective bargaining – a fundamental right under the Canadian Constitution as well as international labour standards. Fair labour laws must protect workers’ rights to unionize against employer intimidation and threats. This need includes enabling quicker, more efficient ways of certifying unions, alternative and broad-based models for collective bargaining and stricter penalties for employers who break the law.
51 See Unifor, Canada’s Auto Industry Fast Facts, 2020.
53 Union coverage data is available via Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/cv.action?pid=1410007001 Historical data from the Survey of Work History.
Standardized work conditions, such as wages and benefits across a targeted sector, provide a measure of stability and security for workers, particularly within a heavily pressurized and cost-competitive auto parts industry. Unlike in the auto assembly sector, comprised of a handful of original equipment manufacturers whose wages and benefits are generally aligned, and follow the terms of the “master” settlement negotiated by Unifor, the parts industry represents a range of large top tier firms and smaller second tier firms. As a result, hourly rates of pay are scattered, ranging from minimum wage to more than $30 per hour depending on the supplier, as are benefits, premium rates, and other employment terms. Following the lead of other automaking countries, including those in Europe, governments in Canada must explore the merits of a sector-wide collective bargaining framework intended to support workers, create cost certainty for suppliers and eliminate the incentive to cut labour costs as a means to attract investment.