Solidarity's No Heavy Lift, Say Fitness Workers

The first unionized personal trainers in North America are fighting for a contract. Photo: Workers United Canada Council

Last year personal trainers at Canada’s largest chain of gyms became the first fitness workers in North America to unionize, joining Workers United.

Since then, 650 trainers at GoodLife Fitness in Toronto and two nearby cities have been fighting for a first contract, and waging fights for better conditions club by club.

GoodLife boasts that it’s the fourth largest fitness company in the world, with 385 clubs and 1,400,000 members. Its motto is “helping to transform the health and wellness of Canadians every day.” But its employee practices mirror conditions in other low-wage sales and service jobs.

“The nature within the company is to be competitive: how are you going to beat so and so, who sold more last month, who trained more hours?” says Eris Collins, a personal trainer who sits on the bargaining team. “That personally doesn’t inspire me—you want everyone to do well.”

UNPAID WORK

$15 in Ontario

The contract campaign has been bolstered by a legislative fight in Ontario for a $15 minimum wage and paid sick days, coordinated by the Workers’ Action Center and the Ontario Federation of Labour.

On June 1, the Ontario government announced a bill for a $15 minimum wage and for two paid sick days per year, along with several other significant labor reforms. If adopted, the minimum wage would increase to $14 next January 1 and to $15 a year later. Business is lobbying heavily to water down the bill, but it is expected to pass.

Trainers have spoken out at legislative hearings. “Health is a really important thing for us, and if we’re sacrificing ourselves [to come in when we’re sick], imagine everyone else,” said Danesh Hanbury.

Trainers are expected to find their own clients from within GoodLife’s membership by setting up booths in the gym and by going around signing people up for consultations.

Until they began organizing, trainers were generally paid only for the time they spent actually working with clients. Some prospecting work could be paid, but then management would deduct that money from workers’ commissions for selling training packages.

“When I started 10 years ago it seemed like a fair amount,” says Jason Lau, another bargainer. “But management started asking for more and more work that’s unpaid, so that the time trainers do get paid gets canceled out and can even go below the minimum wage.”

When customers sign up for a membership, they get a discounted rate if they also want personal training. Trainers get minimum wage—currently $11.40 per hour in Ontario—to work with those clients. Ideally, after the three or six discounted sessions, the client will sign up for more at a higher rate.

That system lends itself to favoritism, says Lau, since it’s up to the manager to divvy up the leads.

“The company frames it so that it’s a privilege to work for them, like, ‘what have you done for me this week so you get a client?’” says Collins.

A lack of paid sick days is another hot issue. Trainers power through illness because they can’t afford to stay home, says Danesh Hanbury, a trainer at another downtown Toronto club and a bargaining committee member. “We’re promoting an idea of health and exercise, and then you walk in and see your trainer with a runny nose.”

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A class action suit by a former trainer over unpaid wages and overtime has also put GoodLife in the hot seat. Since it was filed, GoodLife has started to pay for some of the unpaid work trainers were doing.

MOTIVATING CLIENTS

Spread out at 42 locations across the city, the union is keeping trainers connected through a petition and by leafleting clients outside the clubs. “Management seemed to want to shut that down as soon as possible, ” Lau said.

At Hanbury’s club, members launched a sticker day about paid sick days. The morning of the action, they heard from workers at another club that management was saying any trainers seen wearing a sticker would be sent home.

But because trainers all put on their stickers at 5:30pm—the busiest time in the club—management couldn’t pick on any one person.

“Most of us told our clients why we were doing it, and everyone was like ‘good for you, go for it,’” says Hanbury.

Since the action, Hanbury says, “I’ve seen trainers less willing to be pushed around by management, where before everyone nodded their head.”

SIMPLE ACTIONS

Collins has found that even a simple action like speaking up in a staff meeting can have a big impact in building trainers’ confidence.

In a recent meeting she decided to say something about the unpaid hours trainers were still working. Management was paying for only one hour no matter how long a client consultation took.

When a co-worker reported on a recent consultation, Collins asked, “How long did that take you? An hour and 15 minutes? So do you know that you should be getting paid for the full time you did for the consult?”

When the manager tried to change the subject, Collins persisted: “Six hundred other trainers in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] are getting paid for these things, we need to get paid for them, too.”

No one said anything until the end of the meeting, when one trainer raised his hand: “I had a consult that took three hours, so I get paid for that?” The manager muttered: “Technically, yes.”

It was a small victory for Collins. “I’m looking around the room,” she said, “and all these trainers have been working all these hours for free—who’s the real bad guy? Is it me making the manager uncomfortable, or is it that manager who’s not paying a living wage?”

After the meeting, another co-worker asked Collins if it was hard to speak up. She responded: “The first time standing up to the manager is really, really hard, but it gets easier every time.”

For more, see an interview with one GoodLife trainer and union activist, "Stickering Up for Paid Sick Days."

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #462, September 2017. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.