Labour Pains: The State of Labour Unions in Canada By Leon Bracey 2013

While approximately 70 percent of employees in the public sector are unionized, recent figures show that union density in the private sector is at an all-time low of 15.9 percent. With these declining numbers, the possibility of a post-union workforce in Canada may become a reality and the question may arise: are labour unions still relevant in today’s workforce? According to a recent Government of Canada report on union coverage, almost 50 percent of workers belong to just nine unions, each covering at least 100,000 workers.

The report also notes that “at the other end of the spectrum, 162 unions, having fewer than 10,000 members, represent just 8 percent of workers.”

The decline in union membership has had an impact on the labour unions themselves. According to The Canadian Press, two of the largest private sector unions in Canada will be consolidating in 2013. The merger of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) will become the largest private sector union in Canada. The merger, naturally, has generated a number of questions regarding what impact it will have on the Canadian workforce in general. With overarching factors such as neoliberal capitalism, the overall state of working class, and the limitations of unions in this era, the merger of Canada’s two largest private-sector unions will have to address these issues.

Labour unions have had a long and storied history in Canada. Records show that skilled tradesmen even had a union organization during the War of 1812. The first national labour organization was formed in 1873 at a national convention in Toronto, an organization which later became the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada in 1883, a forerunner of the present Canadian Labour Congress.

Escalation in labour activity started in the early 1900s as workers demanded universal eight-hour days, union recognition and better wages. Between 1919 and 1920 there were over 1500 strikes involving an estimated 375,000 workers. During the post-World War II era, an increased pattern of unionization developed throughout the public sector. Teachers, nurses, social workers, professors, and cultural workers (those employed in museums, orchestras, and art galleries) all sought collective bargaining rights.

There are a number of reasons for the modern decline in labour unions, including a change in demographics, the decline of local manufacturing and growing hostility about the role of unions from both governments and the non-unionized public. In the 1970s, the federal government came under intense pressures to curtail the cost of labour and inflation. In 1975, the Liberal government under Prime Minister Trudeau introduced price and wage controls that were mandatory. Under the new law, wage increases were monitored and those ruled to be unacceptably high were rejected by the government.

Pressures on unions continued well into the 1980s and 90s. Private sector unions faced plant closures in many manufacturing industries and saw demands to reduce wages and increase productivity. Public sector unions came under attack by federal and provincial governments as they attempted to reduce spending and balance budgets. Legislation was introduced in many jurisdictions to reverse union collective bargaining rights, and many jobs were lost to non-unionized contractors.

It is undeniable that the relevance of unions has also faded from the national consciousness. Baby boomers, many of whom are now retiring from the workforce, can more easily relate to the success of labour unions in achieving important gains around equal pay for women, combating racial discrimination, and improving working conditions. In contrast, many members of the millennial generation hold negative views about the relevance of unions. They have grown up in a society in which many of these battles have already been won and do not see the benefit of joining a union. In fact, seniority rules, created from bargaining agreements that enable access to coveted shifts and vacation time, tend to benefit older workers more than younger members of the workforce.

Hostility toward unions and the reasons for their decline has been a subject of controversy for years. Public Response, a pro-labour public relations firm in Ottawa, conducted an online survey in 2012 that found a significant majority – 61 percent – believe unions do “a good job of protecting their members’ jobs.” However, 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 percent agreed and 42 percent disagreed. Significantly, 21 percent strongly disagreed, outstripping the 15 percent who felt strongly that unions benefit society generally.

The rhetoric can be seen on both sides of the political spectrum. Left-leaning individuals may blame union decline on corporations and the government. Ken Lewenza Sr., the national president of the CAW, says, “This is a battle and I don’t see that changing in the near future because public-policy mechanisms are being put in place to force workers to feel the uncertainty driven by the economy.”

The right, conversely, blames union decline on obsolescence. Many feel changes in government policy (notably minimum wage laws and maternity leave laws) and enlightened employers responding to market conditions make unions redundant. In an article in the Globe and Mail, Jayson Myers, President and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, Canada’s largest industry and trade association, argues that many of the conditions that led to the formation of unions 40 or 50 years ago – such as unsafe work environments – no longer exist, and unions must now deal with new issues, including the need for companies to attract new kinds of workers in new areas even as they downsize workers in other areas.

Nevertheless, labour analyst Morna Ballantyne of Public Response states that current conditions in the workplace could possibly turn the tide in favour of labour unions. In a report in the Canadian Press, Ballantyne says that issues such as stagnant wages, unemployment, non-existent pensions and negligible job security for younger Canadians — the least unionized part of the workforce – could make a new generation more receptive toward joining unions. However, if the government squeeze on public and private sector unions continues, is it even a possibility for unions to exist in today’s business climate? Only time will tell.