There’s Power in a Union

Editor’s Note: I heard Oona Johnstone-Laurette interviewed on CBC Information Morning Cape Breton recently and was so struck by what she had to say about unions—she had recently participated in an all-ages panel discussion hosted by Unifor—that I reached out to her to see if she might be willing to share some of her thoughts with my readers. She graciously agreed to allow the Spectator to publish this essay, written originally for school but modified for publication. The only missing piece is the few lines of bio that should accompany her photograph and I will add these to my bare bones description as soon as I receive them! (Update: they’ve been added.)


In 1936, a group of laborers at the Sydney Steel Plant formed one of the earliest steelworkers unions in Canada. The plant had begun operations in 1899 and the need for a union was evident to workers subject to hazardous working conditions, wage insecurity and shifts as long as 24 hours. Despite these obvious risks, unionization was not easy nor was it the end of the struggle against their employers: a little more than a decade prior to the establishment of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, mounted police attacked strikers and protesters at the gates of the plant on what we have come to know as “Bloody Sunday.”

A large group of steelworkers standing in rows, 1920.

Steelworkers in Sydney, NS, 1920 (Beaton Institute photo)

When examining this story of unions and the extreme actions taken to combat them, it’s easy to view it as past history with little relevance to modern workers. Indeed, the advances unions fought for now seem like inalienable rights. However, the foundation laid by union workers has become increasingly jeopardized and is further threatened by problems unique to modern capitalist structures in a global society.


A photo of a man in a suit jacket and tie.

Jim Stanford

Many of the workplace struggles from decades ago continue today: unfair wages, unsafe working conditions and excessive working hours remain things unions work to overcome. That said, the way labor is utilized in the modern workplace and the conditions in which people work could not be more different. The corporate world is evolving at a rapid pace and workers are being dragged along behind, reaping few of the benefits their work produces. To secure the future of workers, unions must adapt to this new corporate environment while continuing to act as a voice for the people in a system designed to suppress it.

Since the 1980s, unions have confronted the policies associated with neoliberalism—a political concept emphasizing deregulation (including labor markets), privatization, globalization and strict monetary policy. Through restrictive policies, as Canadian economist Jim Stanford has explained, governments have tried deliberately to weaken unions. US laws have constrained them and attempted to make them unappealing, imposing complicated rules within which they must operate. However, American public support for unions is stronger now than it has been in decades, Canada has registered a consistent number of unionized workers over the past 25 years and more workers are stepping up and gathering support to unionize for stronger rights.


One example of this new wave of unionization involves the global coffee chain Starbucks. This domino effect began in 2020 when workers at several Starbucks locations in the United States began organizing. Their efforts were fueled by growing worker unrest sparked by the pandemic, which highlighted the many areas of the corporate system that were failing workers in their time of need. This need for change was felt throughout the chain, leading to similar actions in Starbucks locations across the country. Now, in 2023, more than 200 locations have successfully organized, with workers at even more shops initiating such efforts. However, despite the demands of the union being reasonable (they included the right to organize, open negotiations regarding wages and a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual and verbal abuse), there have been extensive efforts by Starbucks owners to limit organizing and its retaliation against workers who have organized successfully has included shuttering unionized locations.

Starbucks workers marching behind a "Solidarity" banner.

Starbucks workers rally and march in Seattle, Washington, March 2022. (Photo by elliotstoller, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

As the wave of unionization hit Starbucks locations in Canada, employees reported facing similar barriers when trying to organize. Sarah Broad, a shift supervisor and union representative at a Starbucks in Victoria, BC, reported that wage increases and other benefits promised employees earlier in the year were being halted due to the effort to unionize. This in addition to union organizers being fired by the company and the return of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz as interim CEO in 2022.

As Andrea Hsu reported for NPR, Shultz told the press that he “knows the company is at a point where it must transform once again.” It’s unclear if he was referring to the recent union activity, but Schultz retaking the helm has had worrying implications for organizers. Under his leadership, additional steps have already been taken to crack down on those pushing for unionization, including mandatory meetings wherein employees are discouraged from organizing.

Publicly, Schultz continually pushes a narrative of Starbucks as a morally upstanding business, invoking the tried-and-true image of the chain as not just a company but a “family.” In his public statements regarding those pushing for unions, he sounds like a disappointed parent watching his ungrateful children rebel against him: “No partner has ever needed to have a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners at Starbucks,” Schultz insisted in a letter to organizing workers in Buffalo, “I am saddened and concerned to hear anyone thinks that is needed now.”

In the past, Schultz had argued that what Starbucks lacked in terms of a union, it made up for it with supplemental benefits—“perks” like health insurance or free subscriptions which, while helpful in theory, often failed to live up to the promises made by the corporation. The health insurance, for example, was so costly that, as Molly Osberg reported in The Baffler, employees rarely used it, and the benefits overall were no replacement for an actual voice representing the workers.


The hollow promises of the Starbucks perks are a way of keeping employees complacent, a promise of a better future and of change that has the effect of shielding the company from any systemic growth. This type of corporate strategy pre-dates Starbucks: it can be seen as early as the late 19th century, when a strike by Canadian printing press workers led Prime Minister John A. MacDonald to pass the Trade Unions Act of 1872.

MacDonald likely did this less to help workers than to embarrass his political rivals, who were involved in the arrests of picketing protesters. After the Act was passed and MacDonald had gained the favor of those in the movement, he went on to pass legislation that outlawed picketing and limited the power of unions; silencing, once again, the voices of workers. Unions realized that governments could take away rights as easily as they could bestow them. As the Canadian Labour Congress explained in 2018, “Legal strikes, even the freedom to hold union meetings were declared criminal acts as governments saw fit.”

Plaque commemorating the Toronto printers' strike of 1872.

A plaque commemorating the Printers’ Strike of 1872, located at the northeast corner of Queen’s Park Crescent East and Grosvenor Street, Toronto.

Unions have always been forced to advocate for themselves, rather than receiving support from institutions. In the modern day, some pervasive corporate policies which incentivize profit above all else work to prevent meaningful negotiation between the company and the union, furthering this ideological divide between employer and worker. If we are to continue to strengthen the power of unions, combating these restrictive policies must be one of the first steps.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to discuss this dichotomy with Jim Stanford, the Canadian economist and labor expert cited earlier. During our conversation, he emphasized how, recently, the game has been intentionally rigged against labor:

In other places, including Canada, you had a shift in economic and social policies, away from promoting more equality and supporting unions and unionization—you had a shift away from that to try and deliberately weaken unions, suppress wages and enhance the power of business. This has been a quite deliberate policy strategy which has often been called neoliberalism.

This neoliberalist policy has become the backbone of the modern business world, highlighting capital while undercutting the rights of workers and unions, and yet, as Stanford made clear, the role of unions is as important today as it was 200 years ago:

Unions will always be essential to give workers some kind of collective voice and some kind of bargaining power to balance the unilateral power and interests of the employer.

It’s a view echoed by Suzanne MacNeil, District Labour Union President for Halifax (and a Cape Bretoner), who told me that workers are determined and when “they build trust with each other and say ‘We’re not going to take this,’ that’s an incredibly powerful force.”


In conclusion, the relationship between unions and neoliberal corporations is currently unsustainable. If we are to genuinely pursue beneficial working conditions for those in the workplace, we need systemic change of the structures that limit and restrict union organizing and activity, as well as a zero-tolerance policy for union-busting within corporations.

These are some of the adaptations to the current neoliberal corporate environment that Labor must pursue. In our day and age, the profit-driven company has become the norm, and the public has become desensitized to the abusive working conditions and bare-minimum supports offered to workers—but this doesn’t need to be the case. The recent surge in union activity is proof that a new generation of workers understands they should be compensated for their labor, both monetarily and through actions and support systems that recognize their value as people, not just as a means to an end.

Two striking school support workers in Halifax, one carrying sign that says "We miss the kids"

Striking school support workers at the corner of Woodlawn and Main Street in Dartmouth on 7 June 2023. (Photo by Yvette d’Entremont via Halifax Examiner)

The union continues to be the most powerful tool for worker self-advocacy. This has been true throughout Labor history, which is why those in power have tried to stop  workers from understanding that they are the backbone of the company. When organized, they have the numbers and the bargaining power to create lasting, meaningful change that benefits not just the individual, but the collective.

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn

But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn

We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn

That the union makes us strong

(Solidarity Forever, Ralph Chaplin, 1915)


Featured image: Children riding in the back of a truck holding picket signs during a DOSCO steelworkers strike, 1940, Abbass Studios Ltd via Beaton Institute.



Oona Johnstone-Laurette


Oona Johnstone-Laurette is a student from Sydney, Cape Breton. She has done various work related to unions and the labor movement, as well as being interested in activism and environmentalist efforts to preserve wildlife. She is going to Cape Breton University this fall to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.”