In his Labour Day message, Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti noted three benefits for workers he said might not have happened without unions’ persistent support. All have to do with the fallout from a company bankruptcy. First was the Wage Earner Protection Program, whereby the federal government guarantees six months of wages and vacation pay if a company goes bankrupt. Second and third are new pending regulations to protect retirement savings for workers’ contributions to their pensions and to protect collective agreements from being cancelled during bankruptcy proceedings. While these are landmark changes, the fact Georgetti concentrated on three practical regulatory changes rather than a speech extolling the union movement may reflect the plight of unions at the moment.
In the August edition of Perspectives on Labour and Income, Statistics Canada provides facts about unionization in Canada the union movement may find sobering. Although paid employment rose by 317,000 positions in the first six months of 2008, union membership went up only 53,000. Out of 14.4 million people in the workforce, just 4.2 million belong to a union, yielding a union density rate of 29.4 per cent, down from 29.7 per cent a year ago. That works out to 30.9 per cent for full-time workers and 22.7 per cent for part-time (down from 31.2 per cent and 22.9 per cent respectively).
Unionization rose over the first half of 2008 compared to the same time last year in just five of the 16 sectors in which Statistics Canada classifies work. Education, public administration and utilities posted increases and were still the sectors most unionized; as well, mining, oil and gas and business, building and other support services gained union members. Union membership fell in healthcare and social assistance, transportation and warehousing, construction, manufacturing and the information and cultural sector: a list comprising the next most highly unionized sectors.
Four of the least organized areas, finance, insurance, real estate and leasing, the so-called other services, accommodation and food services, and professional, scientific and technical services also showed a loss of unionization. Agriculture, the least unionized sector of all, saw no changes in the two six-month periods being compared.
As far as the provinces were concerned, union coverage went up in 2008 in Newfoundland and Labrador (from 38.3 to 39.0 per cent), P.E.I. (30.7 to 31.1 per cent), New Brunswick (28.4 to 30.0 per cent) and Alberta (24.2 to 24.6 per cent — and still the least unionized). At 39.2 per cent coverage, Quebec showed the highest union density even though it was down slightly from 39.4 per cent in the first half of 2007.
Those aged 45 to 54 were most likely to be covered by a union contract (39.7 per cent, down from 40.7 last year), while those aged 15 to 24 were least likely (15.2 per cent, up from 15.0 per cent last year). Workers with a university degree saw union coverage for 36.9 per cent of their cohort — likely because of the need for higher education in such heavily unionized fields as health and education.
Not surprisingly, the public sector (74.5 per cent, down slightly from 75.2 per cent last year) far out-weighed the private sector in union coverage (17.9 per cent this year compared to last year’s 18.8 per cent). About the same percentage of women (31.9 percent down from 32.0) and men (31.1 per cent, down from 31.7) had union coverage.
Finally, workplaces with over 500 employees and job seniority of over 14 years were situations most likely to be unionized (54.8 per cent and 52.8 per cent respectively this year, compared to 53.8 and 54.4 per cent respectively last year).