Canadian Unions Achieve Strong Gains in Membership

By Gunderson, Morley; Meltz, Noah M. | Monthly Labor Review, April 1986 | Go to article overview

Canadian Unions Achieve Strong Gains in Membership


Gunderson, Morley, Meltz, Noah M., Monthly Labor Review


Canadian unions achieve strong gains in membership In sharp contrast to the situation in the United States, union membership has not declined in Canada. In fact, union membership has grown from 2.7 million in 1974 to 3.6 million in 1982, remaining at that level through 1984 and accounting for approximately 40 percent of the nonagricultural paid workforce. Much of the growth since the 1960's has occurred in the public sector, which is heavily unionized; however, unionism has been sustained or has grown across many elements of the private sector. While union membership has been maintained, organized workers have been challenged by the increased use of nonunion labor, especially in construction.

Canadian unionism has become more national than international in scope. That is, there appears to be a pronounced and steady trend away from International (that is, U.S.)-based unionism. The international proportion of total Canadian membership fell from 53.2 percent in 1975 to 39.4 percent in 1985. This reduced share did not result from a decline in international union membership. In fact, the number in 1985 was almost identical with that in 1974. The relative decline of international unions came from the addition of almost 1 million members in national (Canadian-only) unions. A large part of this growth was due to public sector unions which have grown since the 1960's to replace the blue-collar unions as the largest unions in Canada. In addition, some formerly international unions became national unions. The largest single change is the recent formation of the UAW-Canada. This move involves 136,000 members and would lower the proportion of international membership in 1985 from 39.4 percent to 35.7 percent.

The shift from international to national unions was a relatively limited phenomenon prior to the UAW-Canada. A more pronounced development was the increase in autonomy among the Canadian sections of international unions. At the time of this writing, the UAW-Canada is being closely observed to see whether it will set a pattern for other internationals. The president of the union, Robert White, who is in large part responsible for the formation of the new union, advocates merger with a number of other unions, such as the Steelworkers, to form a large metalworkers federation. The United Steelworkers of America, under its Canadian-born President Lynn Williams, is strongly resisting this development.

A final point concerning international unions relates to the Canadian Federation of Labour, an organization formed in 1982 of international unions in the building trades. …

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