Labour Day will be observed Saturday as changes to the workforce continue to occur because of the pandemic. Before last year, generational shifts had already begun to affect habits, dispositions and practices in the workplace. Those changes have been accelerated because of the need to adapt.
Indeed, the announcement of modified curfew hours for this weekend serves as a reminder of the continuously shifting landscape around labour and labour unions. It is tempting to see the role of trade unions as being supplanted by public health considerations and the dictates of “the new normal.”
The use of technology, such as artificial intelligence, the increased incidence of remote working, the decisive turn to gig work and contract work, the movement of retail to online spaces, and higher turnover rates because of the tendencies of “Gen Z” workers suggest the current modes of labour mobilisation may already be redundant.
If trade unions are to remain relevant they, like everyone else, will have to adapt. This means more than simply holding a virtual event on Saturday in lieu of the traditional march.
There remain vital matters for which advocacy and representation are needed. The pandemic has raised a lot of issues and questions which are yet to be settled in law and in public policy.
At the moment, there is a raging debate over the question of whether covid19 vaccination should be mandatory. Some jurists have publicly suggested reasonableness will dictate that public health risks can only be addressed by mass vaccination, while other jurists have said employers cannot reasonably force an employee to take a vaccine.
There are messy moral and ethical issues involved and whichever way such issues are settled, there will be a role for channels of feedback and appeal.
Whatever its prospects moving forward, the labour movement has historically been a part of a strong democratic tradition that grants people freedom of association and allows such associations to be heard. In this context, the dilution of the workforce through remote working and alternate modes of employment does present risks to individual workers. Whether unions are appropriate mechanisms to address these risks depends entirely on the way these unions work and how they envision themselves going forward.
The classic situation of a worker being discriminated against or harassed is another example of the kind of thing labour unions will still be needed for. Until the State gets its anti-discrimination laws and enforcement mechanisms up to scratch, it is the trade union movement that will play the most vital role in addressing inequity.
How labour unions will survive this current period is not clear, however. A lot of the trends and changes have undoubtedly resulted in a decline in union membership and dues, raising questions about State support.
Yet, before we forecast the demise of the labour movement, it is worthwhile to also remember that while working practices have rapidly changed, some forms of work have not. For the moment, there will always be industrial workers, factory workers and government workers in need of representation.
But can unions adapt enough to remain relevant?