Union Influence Waning in Canada

By Finlayson, Jock | Winnipeg Free Press, September 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Union Influence Waning in Canada


Finlayson, Jock, Winnipeg Free Press


VANCOUVER -- Recent news two of Canada's biggest unions are contemplating joining forces points to the challenges confronting trade unions in today's hyper-competitive economy.

The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) are looking at merging to enhance their bargaining power and their ability to advance the interests of their members. In late August, the CAW formally voted to combine with the CEP, which itself will take up the matter in the fall.

Should the merger proceed, the enlarged union would have more than 300,000 members employed in a host of industry sectors, but with a particular focus on manufacturing, communications and transportation.

This announcement comes on the heels of a number of previous union mergers. Looking ahead, more are likely. The strategy makes sense for unions struggling with dwindling memberships, rising costs, and determined efforts by employers to contain their compensation bills.

Many businesses have been able to reap benefits by spreading fixed costs over more employees or customers; a similar logic applies to unions, which can gain economic advantages by adding members and also by diversifying the industry sectors in which they operate.

The spurt of union mergers comes against the backdrop of a long downtrend in "union density" -- defined as the proportion of the overall workforce that belongs to a union. Falling density is particularly evident in the private sector, where only 16 per cent of workers in Canada now hold union membership cards. Thirty years ago almost one in three private-sector employees were part of a union.

Driven by unions' diminishing "market power" in the private sector, economy-wide union density has gradually decreased since the 1980s; in Canada, it currently sits just below 30 per cent. Density is noticeably lower in some provinces, such as Ontario (26.6 per cent) and Alberta (22 per cent). In contrast, Newfoundland (38.1 per cent) and Quebec (36.3 per cent) have the highest union-density rates, while British Columbia (30 per cent) is close to the national average.

When it comes to unions' presence, the public and private sectors in Canada increasingly resemble two different worlds. In the public sector, unions are deeply entrenched and represent significant majorities of employees. Nationally, more than 70 per cent of workers in the broad public sector -- which includes government administration, social services, education, and most of the large health-care industry -- are union members. As noted above, this compares to private-sector union density rates of 15 to 20 per cent across the provinces.

But it's worth noting union density also varies significantly within the business community. …

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