Canadian Manufacturing

Embattled labour unions on the decline

Canada's unions have fallen on pretty hard times lately, but does the surge in low-wage service sector jobs provide fertile grounds for renewal?



OTTAWA—Figures from Statistics Canada suggest the labour movement in Canada is in a 30-year decline.

While numbers have stabilized in recent years, organized labour is surviving but not thriving and is anchored disproportionately in the public sector.

Less than 30 per cent of the workforce—some 4.3 million employees—was unionized in 2011, a slight increase both in percentage and absolute numbers over 2010.

But the public sector dominated. More than 71 per cent of the public sphere was unionized, while private sector numbers plummet to 16 per cent.

Karla Thorpe, who handles industrial relations research for the Conference Board of Canada, says the national workforce unionization rate masks a distinct trend.

“We have been seeing a decline in unionization within the private sector, but that’s been offset by the level of unionization in the public sector,” Thorpe said in an interview.

However with governments at all levels in Canada currently reining in deficits, Thorpe anticipates declining unionization rates overall in coming years.

Moreover, private-sector growth is occurring in sectors not traditionally organized. Smaller employers scattered at locations across the country are far more difficult to organize than large industries employing thousands of people in a single plant.

Pro-labour advocates say that while some union-fought gains are part of the economic fabric—such as working hours, human rights protections, health and safety—others are unravelling.

“While we may not have dark, satanic mills like we did in the 19th century, workers’ conditions have been essentially on the decline for quite some time,” said Mark Leier, a labour historian at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University.

He says working wages, in particular, have barely kept pace with inflation.

Labour Optics
Public Response, a pro-labour, left-of-centre public relations firm in Ottawa, conducted an online survey last month that found a significant majority, 61 per cent, believe unions do “a good job of protecting their members’ jobs.”

But opinion among the 2,099 respondents was far more divided on whether “gains made by unions for their members also improve the lives of other Canadians.”

Some 46 per cent agreed and 42 per cent disagreed. Significantly, 21 per cent strongly disagreed, outstripping the 15 per cent who felt strongly that unions benefit society generally.

The poll results speak to a narrative that unions are self-interested and that gains for organized labour are a detriment to the economy as a whole.

“It’s an argument that’s been given voice by a lot of powerful organizations and I think people are starting to believe it,” said Morna Ballantyne, labour analyst for Public Response.

She says unions gained clout by demonstrating they were the champions of both unionized and non-unionized labour, leveraging gains that benefited all workers.

“We have some lessons to learn from history,” she said, pointing approvingly to current efforts by major unions such as the CLC that advocate for improvements to the Canada Pension Plan.

But in a year that opened with Rio Tinto Alcan locking out 800 workers in Alma, Que.; Caterpillar locking out workers in London, Ont., before closing shop; federal interventions in Air Canada and CP Rail labour disputes; and Ontario’s provincial government cracking down on teachers’ unions, organized labour is having a rough go.

Thorpe predicts a tough road ahead as governments put the squeeze on public-sector unions and the private sector continues to prove barren ground.

Ballantyne suggests that all the dark signals of organized labour at low ebb ultimately point to the labour movement’s silver lining.

She argues that poor wages, high unemployment, non-existent pensions and negligible job security for younger Canadians—by far the least unionized segment of society—make a ripe demographic for renewal.

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