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Trends in Unionization...in Canada and the Wider World

In many industrial countries the union movement is struggling to adapt to the accelerating pace of economic and technological change and related shifts in business practices, the structure of employment, and demographics.  As jobs have migrated from manufacturing, resources and other goods-producing industries toward services, “union density” – the share of the workforce that belongs to a union – has been under downward pressure. The steady growth of cross-border trade and capital flows and the continued proliferation of global supply chains have also created challenges for organized labour. Overall, unions across the developed world have seen their bargaining power diminish, particularly in industry sectors that are exposed to international competition. 

Canada and British Columbia have not been immune to these trends. But since the start of the millennium, the labour movement in Canada has been more successful in sustaining its “market share” than its counterparts in many other jurisdictions. The legal and institutional environment affecting union activity differs across the advanced economies, as does the industrial structure, and these factors may partly explain cross-national variations in the role and influence of trade unions within the labour market.

Report Highlights

  • As global competition has increased and jobs have migrated from manufacturing and other goods-producing industries toward services, the share of the workforce that belongs to a union (“union density”) has trended lower in most advanced economies. Australia, Austria, Sweden, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands are among the developed countries that have seen particularly steep declines in the overall rate of unionization in the 2000s. 
  • Unionization has been relatively stable in Canada since 1999, but it has fallen significantly in the past four decades, dropping from 37.6% in 1981 to slightly less than 29% by 2014.
  • Over time, the union movement in Canada (including BC) has become increasingly concentrated in the public sector.  More than 70% of employees in the broad Canadian public sector now belong to unions, whereas in the private sector less than one-fifth of workers hold union membership cards.
  • The growing importance of the public sector within the Canadian union movement has resulted in women comprising a larger fraction of all unionized workers – a development that reflects the strong presence of women in many public sector jobs.  Since the early 1980s, the rate of unionization among women in Canada has been relatively stable, even as it has fallen sharply among men.
  • Union density in Canada continues to be positively correlated with age.  A worker aged 45 to 64 is two-and-a-half times as likely to be a union member as a young worker aged 17 to 24.  
  • The rate of unionization in British Columbia is now almost identical to the national average.  Since 1981 the decrease in union density in BC has exceeded that in other provinces, with most of the decline occurring in the 1980s and 1990s.

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