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Some Thoughts on Canadian Unionization Rates

Cancac, a cabinet maker north of Toronto, just announced it’s closing its factory and moving production to its North Carolina factory.  This will result in a loss of 1000 unionized manufacturing jobs.   The ongoing decline in Canada’s manufacturing sector has had significant effects on the composition of union membership in Canada.  Historically, union membership was primiarily in heavy industry (mining, forestry, manufacturing), where jobs were filled primarily by men (mostly white men).  For example, in 1987, approximately 1/3 of union membership was in the “goods producing” sector.  By 2003, that number had dropped to around 1/4, and union density in that sector fell from around 40% in 1987 to about 30% in 2003.

It is often noted that Canadian union density (the percentage of ’non-agricultural’ workers who are union members) rate has remained relatively constant at near 30 percent for a long time.  That is true (it fell from 35.5 % in 1984 to 30.3% in 2007), but the composition of membership has changed dramatically, as this report by Stats Canada describes.   Union density in the private sector has actually fallen considerbly since the 1970s, from nearly 30% to around 17% in 2006.   The reason the overal density rate has stayed near 30% is because Canada’s public sector density rate has held at just above 70%.   The percentage of women workers who were union members was around 10% in the late 1970s.  In 2007, 30% of women workers were union members, while only 29.3% of men belonged to unions.   

In other words, if your image of a typical union member is a cigar smoking, big guy, think again.  Today, union members are more likely to be women working in the public sector.  The big challenge for unions has, for a couple of decades now, been to find ways to build support in the private service sector, where they have traditionally not fared well in organizing new members.  Check out the following union density rates by industry as of 2003:

Retail:  14.2%;  Accommodation & Food Services:  7.4%;   Finance & Insurance:  9%;  Professional, Scientific, Technical: 4.5%;  Real Estate:  7.6%;  “Other services”:  9.2%

Part of the reason why union density rates are so low in these sectors may be a lack of demand for unions by the workers (although studies seems to show that a large percentage of non-union workers would actually support a union if given the opportunity- see summary of some of the studies on p. 376-77 here).  But think about how labour laws may also contribute to the challenge unions face in organizing these workplaces.  If we assume that these employees are actually interested in unions, can you propose any legislative changes that could facilitate union organizing in the private service sector?   We’ll come back to this topic in future blogs!


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