When Rodrigo Gutierrez first started out as a painter, he was on his own. It was up to him to find work, keep up with industry practices, and if an accident occurred, it was on him.

“As you’re getting older — you realize you’re not going to get rich working by the hour — so I was thinking ‘what if something happened to me?’ I’ve got to think about my family,” says Gutierrez, an Albertan of Chilean descent and a father of two. 

Gutierrez, 44, found his answer from a union representative who described some of the benefits of being a union member — highlighting things like training,  work opportunities, a set rate of pay, health and dental coverage, and a pension. 

In Canada, more than 71 percent of the public sector workforce, and 15 percent of the private sector, is unionized, according to Statistics Canada. After working for 15 years as a non-union painter, Gutierrez decided to give the union a try. One decade later, he says that his only regret is that he didn’t join sooner. 

Safety first 

One of the primary focuses of unions is to ensure the health and safety of their members, explains Joe Russo, the Business Manager/Secretary-Treasurer of District Council 46 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT). 

“Anybody trying to learn a skilled trade without the benefit of a union training centre or the union guidelines and safety procedures with respect to how to do their job properly and safely is really taking a chance,” says Russo. He explains that through the union, members are kept up-to-date on the latest safety practices and protected if job sites do not meet regulations.  “That’s one of the things I like the most because I want to go to work and come back the same way I left — in one piece,” says Gutierrez. 

“After working for 15 years as a non-union painter, Gutierrez decided to give the union a try. One decade later, he says that his only regret is that he didn’t join sooner.”

A recent survey of more than 40,000 Ontario construction firms found that unionized workers were nearly 30 percent less likely to suffer critical workplace injuries that required time off of work. 

“From a safety perspective, union members have been well trained over the years and are a valuable asset,” says Steve Snider, CEO of Halifax Harbour Bridges, owner and operator of the MacKay and Macdonald Bridges. The bridges — which see on average 105,000 vehicles a day — regularly employ union members. 

"A recent survey of more than 40,000 Ontario construction firms found that unionized workers were nearly 30 percent less likely to suffer critical workplace injuries that required time off of work."

Always improving 

As technology advances, unions help members keep up with changing best practices. “The union is always on the ball when it comes to new techniques,” says Gutierrez, recalling that when the union helped him become a journeyman, he was able to use their training center to practice and perfect different skills. 

These same skills are well adapted to solving age old problems with new solutions. Take for example corrosion protection, which his union now focuses heavily on in order to help mitigate the effects of wear and tear on Canada’s public infrastructure – a problem that costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year.

All for one 

Walking onto a union job, journeyman Gutierrez says the mutual respect, equal treatment, and standard of practice make a difference that he can feel.   “The big aspect of the union that’s different from non-union workers is that you have a sense of belonging to something,” says Russo. “I often look at the union as being an extended family where we look after each of the members and we do work together to advance our goals.”