Canada Goose employees in Winnipeg have voted overwhelmingly to join the Workers United Canada union after a three-year unionization effort full of acrimony and Manitoba Labour Board appeals.
About 1,000 of the 1,200 garment workers in four locations in Winnipeg (including four employees at a warehouse) participated in the vote, which was 86 per cent in favour of unionization.
It was an effort that Philadelphia-based Richard Minter, international organizing director for Workers United, said marked "the largest private sector victory for manufacturing workers in over 30 years."
Workers United have represented a similar number of Canada Goose workers in Toronto for more than 35 years, but were met with significant resistance from management in its organizing efforts in Winnipeg.
Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, Winnipeg workers were angry and upset at having to use outdoor portable toilets at the company’s Mountain Avenue production facility.
There have been incidents of termination, high levels of absenteeism and allegations of widespread intimidation by supervisors.
The union previously tried to organize just one of the production locations. In a ruling in December 2019, the Manitoba Labour Board agreed with the company which argued that because the three plants are integrated, unionization at just one would be disruptive.
In that same labour board hearing, there were also charges of unfair labour practices, which the labour board agreed was the case. The company fired a manager as a result.
Minter said the successful vote that was finalized this week was the result of a lot of hard work and bravery on the part of the workers, many of them women who are recent immigrants from Philippines, India, China, Korea and Vietnam.
"The bravery of these workers has been second to none," said Minter. "It has been a long time since I have seen workers rise up with so many beautiful moments during a campaign where they showed their strength and bravery. It was unbelievable."
The majority of workers receive minimum wage with the additional compensation when piece work quotas are exceeded.
But Jo Ann Pinera, the union’s campaign communication co-ordinator, said in the garment industry piece work quotas are based on production and efficiency.
"In a non-unionized plant workers have no say as to what the quota is, even if it is unrealistic to make," she said. "With a union they can make definite changes. They can make arguments for more fair piece rates and for better wages."
The low wages and poor working conditions is in stark contrast to the glamorous image the company projects and the $1,000-plus parkas that they sell.
The fact that the company has had a lengthy relationship with the Workers United union in Toronto has made the bitter relationship with the company in Winnipeg all the more frustrating. Minter believes things changed when the U.S. private equity firm, Bain Capital purchased a majority stake in Canada Goose in 2013.
"The company has grown a lot since Bain came on board but the workers in Winnipeg have been left behind,’ Minter said. "It has always confused us."
“For them (Canada Goose) to make that right was a big thing. I think it is worth applauding. I really do.” – Richard Minter, international organizing director for Workers United
He said the union had a great relationship with the company at its Toronto factories.
"We have been able to bargain through issues and deal with grievances in a just fashion," he said. "It was not a place where you are looking for picket lines or strikes and lock-outs and all that stuff."
Minter said that while there continued to be strenuous push back from the company up until this fall, he said at some point he believed the company decided "enough was enough"
"For them (Canada Goose) to make that right was a big thing," said Minter. "I think it is worth applauding. I really do."
Canada Goose company officials declined an interview, but in an emailed statement to the Free Press said, "Our goal has always been to support our employees; respecting their right to determine their own representation. We welcome Workers United as the union representative for our employees across our manufacturing facilities in Winnipeg and look forward to working alongside them as we have in Scarborough and Toronto for decades."
The company will meet with union officials in the new year to negotiate a contract.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.