With 3.2 million members in Canada, unions have the unique ability to help turn workplaces into inclusive environments where disabilities, different sexual orientations and genders, different ethnicities, those aged young and old are not just treated equally, but considered assets.

“We have almost 10 percent of the Canadian population,” says Naveen Mehta, General Counsel and Director of Human Rights, Equity and Diversity for the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada. “Given those numbers we should be able to influence a variety of policies and governments to the benefit of working people in Canada — both members and non-members.” 

He points to other countries around the world with strong labour movements.

“When you have a higher level of unionization, you have a decreased level of maladies that affect society — stronger income equality, higher socioeconomic conditions, lower levels of poverty,” says Mehta. Unions “are the one entity that can make the fundamental changes that Canada needs to truly be a world leader, and not a world leader in a purely economic sense but where you have a robust economy that everybody takes part in, where it’s a true citizenship.” 

“When you have a higher level of unionization you have a decreased level of maladies that affect society – stronger income equality, higher socioeconomic conditions, lower levels of poverty”

The evolving conversation

The discussion surrounding what needs to be done to make work environments where people can succeed regardless of, and perhaps more importantly, because of the things that make them unique has progressed dramatically over the past decade, says Michael Bach, Founder and CEO of the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion. 

Prior to launching the CIDI last March, Bach had worked as Chief Diversity Officer at auditor, tax and advisory behemoth KPMG.

“When I came into that role in 2005 the conversation was really only about ethnicity, gender, disability and aboriginal communities – the four protected groups under employment equity – and that was all we really talked about,” says Bach. “Since then we’ve begun to get a lot of employers to focus on diversity and the strategic advantage surrounding that.”

Leading the way

Work from unions is paving the way to more inclusive workplaces, he says, pointing to organizations like the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Canadian Auto Workers, which has started to structure strong agendas around sexual orientation and gender issues in the workplace. 

While the CAW might not traditionally be the first place you’d expect to see strong support for sexual orientation and gender issues, inclusion is about shattering the stereotypes, says Bach .

“They have a union that’s very advanced in their thinking surrounding the needs of all their potential members,” he says. “This is why I look to unions to really take the lead — they are there to represent their members and their members come in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities.”

“The trade unions are at a crossroads and to live up to our potential being inclusive and diverse movement is fundamental.”

A curvy road forward

But wide-scale cultural shift won’t happen overnight, cautions Mehta.

“The potential is there,” he says. “The trade unions are at a crossroads and to live up to our potential, an inclusive and diverse movement is fundamental.” 

Over the next year the UFCW plans to hold the National Diversity Inclusion Leadership Summit for union presidents and some of the senior staff across the country to help overcome internal organizational barriers. 

“You want inclusive organizations that take everyone’s perspective in mind when decisions are being made and as a result have a greater variety of ideas,” says Mehta. “That’s where all unions need to move toward — forget about doing it just because it’s the right thing, think about it as being the pragmatic thing."