Coverage, context and change: an update on unionization rates in B.C.

February 11, 2020
Ken Peacock

The union density rate, which captures the proportion of employees covered by a collective agreement, has trended downwards in B.C. for nearly three decades. The pattern did change temporarily when the rate levelled off from 2008 to 2013. But since then it has resumed falling, albeit in a more uneven manner.

Most recently, the share of employees covered by a collective agreement edged down marginally to 29.0% in 2019 from 29.1% the year before. Although the longer-term trend seems to point downward, the unionization rate appears to have levelled out in the last few years, as it was 28.9% in 2016 and three years later is just fractionally higher (29.0%).

Figure 1: Long-term downtrend in B.C. union density

There are widespread differences in unionization rates across industries and segments of the workforce. Perhaps most notable and also very striking is the vast gulf between the public and private sectors. In both instances rates are lower than they were a couple of decades back. But in the broad public sector, union coverage rates have been climbing for many years and have regained lost ground. Pubic sector union density took a somewhat uneven path from the late 1990s to reach a low point of 75.2% in 2012. After that, however, it headed higher and it now (2019) sits at the highest level since 2005.

In comparison, private sector union coverage in B.C. stood at just 15.5% in 2019. There is a full 60 percentage point difference in union density between the public and private sectors. Trends over time are also very different. In the private sector, the unionization rate has fallen consistently over the past 25 years (although, as with the overall rate, the downward trend appears to have abated).

Figure 2: Overall decline is driven by fall in private sector rate

Changes in the absolute numbers of employees covered by union contract further underscore the differences in union coverage across sectors.

In the B.C. private sector, the number of employees covered by a contract has trended gradually lower since 1997/1998. In contrast, the estimated number of public sector employees covered by a collective agreement has climbed steadily since 1997. There are now 354,000 union employees in the broadly defined B.C. public sector. That’s 100,000 more than in the private sector! Of interest, the last time the two broad sectors had roughly the same number of union-covered employees was in 1998, when each had around 267,000.

Figure 3: Number of 'unionized' employees down slightly in the private sector

Union coverage rates vary significantly across industries in the province, ranging from a low of 3.3% in the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services sector to a high of 67% in both Education and Public Administration. Healthcare and the Transportation and Warehousing industry also stand out as having well above average union coverage rates.

Figure 4: Wide range of union density across industries

The final two figures below show how union coverage rates differ across the provinces.

With respect to overall coverage, B.C.’s 29% rate is a lower-middle ranking and puts it amid a group of provinces with similar coverage rates. The other figure breaks out coverage into the public and private sectors. Disaggregating “all employees” into the two sectors changes B.C.’s rank slightly. When broken out this way, B.C. has more of an upper-middle ranking (7th in each of the sectors). But it really is not too different from the overall ranking because the sector rankings also feature a group of four or five provinces with tightly clustered rates.

Figure 5: Union coverage varies across the provinces

Figure 6: Union density varies across provinces

Looking ahead, the overall rate of union coverage in the province will continue to edge lower as the decade unfolds. The reason is the same as what has driven the decline in unionization for the past 25 years – the steady shift in the industrial structure of the provincial economy. Job growth has long been tilted towards industries that have lower rates of union density. And recent evidence indicates this pattern continues. Over the past three years, nearly three-quarters of all new employees have been in industries with rates of union coverage below 23%. The growth dynamics point to falling rates of unionization. And when one considers the fact that fully half of all new employees are in the five industries with the lowest rates of union coverage (14% and below) the long-term trend may pause from time-to-time, but is unlikely to reverse.

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