So many benefits we enjoy as Canadians were once pie-in-the-sky ideas brought forward by unions: pensions, a right to equality at work, health and safety standards, and actually having that wonderful phenomenon known as the weekend.

Unions are still making a daily difference in the lives of their members. Over 4.7 million Canadians — about one out of three employees — belong to a union, according to Statistics Canada. The benefits extend beyond big-ticket items to training, employment standards, and the rewards that come with being part of something larger than yourself.

Opportunities and training

“The construction unions in this country spend about $300 million a year training people,” says Bob Blakely, Director of Canadian Affairs for the Building and Construction Trades Department, a blanket organization for construction unions. From safety to supervision, the latest exotic welding techniques to the newest equipment, training is their edge on the competition, and keeping their members employed.

“The construction unions in this country spend about $300 million a year training people.”

Larry Cann, a leader with the United Association, which represents 53,000 pipefitters and related professionals, has seen it time and time again. Young men (and women too) come in and blossom with apprenticeship programs and mentorship, taking their talent and putting it to good use, even becoming the superintendent on a construction site.    

Stability

In a work world where job security is essentially a thing of the past, unions create stability with higher earnings and better benefits which can provide the wonderful things in life: enough money to buy your kids a bicycle, send them to figure skating, or even postsecondary education.  

Family

Unions can be like an extended family, with an ingrained culture of people helping people. “It doesn’t matter where I go in North America,” Cann says. “If someone sees me with my union t-shirt on, they come over and they talk... If I need something and I’m in their area, I just ask and they do everything they can to help me out.”
In the corporate world, he says, “If they say to me, ’You’re finished today’, I’m on my own.” In a union, there’s someone there with experience on your side that can help.  

People helping people

Cann married the daughter of a steamfitter in 1979 and jokes that he started his apprenticeship in both fields — marriage and fitting. He became active in the union out of a simple desire to help people. He has done everything from helping a member facing terminal asbestosis make sure their family is taken care of to helping people with substance abuse issues get treatment. “I’m a firm believer in paying it forward. You help someone without any expectation of getting something back, and that person will do the same for someone else.”

Fairness

Unions serve as a safety value, says Blakely, an independent third party that can help find a solution when you have a problem at work. Cann notes that “they’ve brought fairness. They bring a balance of power. I can create a more level playing field for my members. If it was me by myself, I wouldn’t get invited to the party.”
But together, they can change things for the better.