It seems like there’s been an upsurge in union activism in Canada in recent months. Big public sector confrontations (like the Ford government’s showdown with teachers’ unions over proposed increases in class sizes) generate the biggest headlines, due to their potential impact on public services. But several important private sector battles have also raged – such as the lockout and subsequent union blockade at the Co-op Refinery in Regina.
Conservative columnists wring their hands over the cost and inconvenience of these “disruptions.” But in fact, these signs of industrial conflict are a good thing, not a bad thing. They confirm that the structures and institutions which provide some workers (less than one-third, in fact) with collective means of workplace advocacy are still powerful. In turn, that supports many important economic and social outcomes: including higher wages, greater social stability, and a more viable “middle class.”
Indeed, there is empirical evidence that Canada’s labour movement has performed better than its peers in most other industrial countries, at a time when trade unions are on the defensive in most jurisdictions. Consider first the overarching challenge of preserving the union movement’s membership base. Overall union density has stabilized in Canada in recent years, at near 30 percent of total paid employment (density actually increased slightly in 2019). That halts a slow but steady decline (of over 3 percentage points) that occurred from 1997 through 2014. Private sector union density, unfortunately, has continued to erode, but at a slower rate than previously; public sector union density in Canada remains very strong (around 75 percent).
The stabilization of union density in Canada is especially noteworthy when considered in international context. Union membership has been under pressure everywhere, for similar reasons as here: global and competitive pressures, anti-union shifts in labour law, aggressive resistance from employers, and changes in the nature of work and workplaces. Since 2011, however, density has been more stable in Canada than almost any other industrial country. Figure 1 shows the change in union density in several OECD economies. The decline in Canadian density over this period is relatively modest. Only Korea (where density grew slightly) and France fared better than Canada. Relative to other countries, therefore, it is clear that Canada’s labour movement has been doing something right. Factors behind this relative success include some incremental changes in labour law (like the reintroduction of card-check certification in the federal sphere), the expansion of public sector employment (which is heavily unionized), and creative and well-resourced organizing efforts by some Canadian unions.
Figure 1: Change in Union Density, OECD Countries, 2011 to Present
Source: Author’s calculations from OECD Labour Market Statistics.
Effective union power requires being able to mobilize members, including in work stoppages, when required to support bargaining demands and other issues. Here, too, Canada ranks as a “hot spot” of international trade union activity. Strikes are far less frequent in Canada than in previous decades; strike activity peaked in the militant 1970s, and has declined dramatically since then. But strikes are still more common in Canada than in most other industrial countries. Strike frequency, measured by average days lost in work stoppages per 1000 workers per year from 2011 through 2016, was third highest in Canada among all OECD countries with comparable data (Figure 2). France and Belgium were the only two places where work stoppages were more common. Of course, strikes only occur when necessary to back workers’ demands; when unions are very strong, strikes may be rare (as in places like Sweden and Austria), because unions can win demands without striking. But the data indicates that Canadian workers are indeed willing and able to withdraw their labour when required – to defend past gains and make forward progress.
Figure 2: Average Annual Work Stoppages, Selected OECD Countries, 2011-2016
Source: Author’s calculations from Statistics Canada, Bureau of Labour Statistics, Australian Bureau of Statistics, and European Trade Union Institute.
The influence of trade unionism is felt not only through collective bargaining at specific workplaces, but more broadly through political and policy decisions by governments, and by general trends in income distribution. In this broader context, it is also clear that Canada’s labour movement has been relatively successful.
The movement to increase minimum wages has gained momentum around the world. A growing consensus among economists and policy-makers agrees that stronger minimum wages are effective in lifting wages in the face of deflationary macroeconomic and competitive pressures. Canada has been in the forefront of the international movement to lift minimum wages, led by major increases in Ontario, Alberta, and B.C.
Figure 3 indicates the change in minimum wages in several industrial countries over the last 5 years. The figure measures the minimum wage in each country relative to median wages (a ratio called the minimum wage “bite”). In several countries the minimum wage has eroded relative to the median (most dramatically in the U.S., where the minimum wage has been frozen since 2009). In contrast, between 2013 and 2018, the minimum wage in Canada grew by over 7 percentage points relative to the median, among the most of any industrial country.
Figure 3: Change in Minimum Wage “Bite,” OECD Countries
The combination of stable trade union membership, relatively strong strike activity, and rising minimum wages has contributed to a partial but important shift in the distribution of national income in Canada over the past decade. Of course, since the advent of conservative economic and social policies under neoliberalism, the distribution of national income has shifted notably from labour towards capital (including both business profits, and the personal incomes of the richest Canadians who own most business wealth). From 1975 through the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, workers’ share of Canadian GDP declined by about 5 percentage points – and the profit share expanded correspondingly. That erosion of labour’s share of the economic pie paralleled (and exacerbated) growing inequality between households: since rich households own a disproportionate share of wealth (that’s what makes them rich!), their incomes rose with the growing share of output allocated to profits and investment income.
Figure 4: Labour Share of GDP, Canada, 1970-2018
Source: Author’s calculations from Statistics Canada Table 36-10-0103-01. Includes wages, salaries, and employer social contributions.
Over the last decade, however, an important and somewhat surprising shift in income distribution back in favour of workers has become visible. The labour share of GDP has regained about 2 percentage points of its earlier losses after 1975. There are many complex factors explaining this reversal – including macroeconomic cycles, fluctuations in resource prices, and the general shift to services production (which tends to be more labour-intensive). But the relatively robust performance of Canadian unions, both in bargaining with employers and in pushing for wage-supporting policies (like minimum wages), has certainly contributed to that important trend. In most countries, the labour share of GDP continued to fall in the last decade. In contrast, the increase in workers’ share of Canada’s GDP in recent years ranks among the largest positive changes in any industrial country (exceeded only by Korea, Norway, Switzerland, and Iceland).
This review of the state of labour and distributional struggles in Canada, compared to the experience of other countries, paints a cautiously optimistic picture. Canadian workers have been relatively successful in preserving their organizational and institutional power (including relatively high and stable rates of unionization). Perhaps more importantly, Canadian workers have been active in wieldingthat power – both through industrial conflict and political advocacy – to defend and even improve their share of the overall economic pie.
This encouraging news should not give rise to complacency, however. The instruments of collective bargaining and redistribution remain too weak in Canada; inequality is still extreme; and with only 30% of employees in a union, most workers have no practical recourse to collective representation. The long-term economic and political pressures that underpin the continuing decline in private sector unionization, and which are redefining the world of work in other worrisome ways (such as the shift to precarious work and digital “gigs”), will weaken collective bargaining further without offsetting policy changes. Meanwhile, business lobbyists are pushing back hard against union rules, minimum wages, and all the other institutional foundations for workers’ power in Canada.
Hence the labour movement must keep seeking ways to become more relevant and effective for Canadian workers. It must build new ways of organizing and representing workers in precarious, temporary and non-standard jobs. It must dramatically improve its presence and activity with communities of immigrant and racialized workers. It must engage young people in the fight for decent jobs. And it must successfully integrate the struggle for jobs with the struggle for environmental sustainability. The Canadian labour movement can be proud of its achievements and its staying power: it has held the line against powerful negative pressures in recent years. But it still faces a desperate and continuing battle to preserve, build, and modernize its influence in Canadian society.
Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Vancouver and Sydney, Australia. This commentary extends previous work published as an afterword in A New Kind of Union, by Fred Wilson (Lorimer: 2019).
Citation: Jim Stanford, “Holding the Line: Canadian Union Power in International Perspective”, Canadian Law of Work Forum (February 27 2020): http://lawofwork.ca/holding-the-line-canadian-union-power-in-international-perspective/