Unions push into service sector

For unions across the country, Sept. 1 is a time to pay tribute to the history of organized labour, which is looking for opportunities to expand.

In the past, unions' biggest strength came from industries like manufacturing. But as that base of workers gets smaller, unions are looking at other areas of the workforce.

There are four million Canadians who are employed by the service industry, in retail, restaurants, casinos and call centres and more and more of them are looking for better wages and benefits.

It's welcome news to labour unions that are trying desperately to increase their membership.

Traditionally, unions have built their strength and success on industries like manufacturing and transportation.

But those workforces are shrinking as goods are being produced more cheaply overseas and employers are forced to cut back.

"So they've got to go into the shopping malls, they've got to go into the Wal-Marts, they've got to go into the Tim Hortons and the McDonald's if they hope to be able to continue to represent a substantial part of the workforce," says Allen Ponak, professor of industrial relations at the University of Calgary.

But unions leaders say it's not easy to organize the service sector. Workers are predominately young, in part-time jobs with a high turnover rate.

"Rather than improving the job, they say 'I'll go look for a job somewhere else.' So there's not the same commitment to making your workplace a little bit better," says Robert Ziegler of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

"It's still there with a lot of members, but it's not quite the same."