Study: Diverging trends in unionization 2005

1981 to 2004

Unionization rates have diverged markedly across groups of workers during the past two decades, according to a new study.

For instance, the unionization rate of men aged 25 to 34 fell by almost 20 percentage points, dropping from 43% in 1981 to 24% in 2004. In contrast, the percentage of women aged 45 to 64 who are unionized rose by 8 points (from 32% to 40%) during the same period.

Roughly one-third of the decline in young men’s union coverage was due to their growing concentration in industries that typically have low union coverage.

About 40% of the increase in the union coverage of women aged 45 to 64 was associated with their growing tendency to be employed in high-coverage industries such as public services.

The decline in union coverage of young males has affected their pay rates. It accounts for about one-fifth of the 10% drop in hourly wages young men experienced between 1981 and 1998.

The study is based on data from three household surveys covering the same labour force population over the study period. “Unionization rate” is defined as the percentage of employees belonging to a union, and does not include those who are covered by a collective agreement but do not belong to a union.

In 2004, about 31% of Canadian workers belonged to a union, down from 38% in 1981. Most of the decline occurred between 1989 and 1998, after which the rate became quite stable.

Unionization in Canada has become far more polarized by age, the study found. Younger workers, particularly those under 35, experienced more pronounced declines in union membership than older workers.

Trends in union membership also varied from industry to industry. A sharp decline in the commercial sector was responsible for an overall decline in union membership between 1981 and 2004.

Unionization has been historically low in some industries such as consumer services, business services, agriculture, and fishing and trapping. Yet goods-producing and distributing industries, where the union presence has traditionally been higher, also experienced large declines.

Forestry and mining saw the largest decline in unionization for both sexes, falling from 46.0% in 1981 to 26.3% in 1998. Construction and manufacturing came next with declines of nearly 13% each.

Blue collar workers, especially those earning between $15.00 and $19.99 per hour, experienced the largest declines in union membership. This is consistent with falling numbers in the goods-producing and distribution sectors.

Declines were also larger among men who had not completed a university degree than among those who had.

Union membership dropped in all provinces between 1981 and 2004. Saskatchewan and Manitoba saw the smallest declines and were still above the national average in 2004.

Rates fell the most in New Brunswick and British Columbia, where particularly large declines occurred in the commercial sector. In New Brunswick, for example, unionization fell by almost half, from 29% to 16%.

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