Labour landscape changing

Huge changes between 1977 and 2003 in the union movement: Statistics Canada

The unionization rate has slowly declined in the past few decades, according to Statistics Canada.

Looking at the union picture between 1977 and 2003, Statistics Canada said the labour movement has undergone dramatic shifts as a result of changes in the workplace demographics, labour laws and economic structure.

These shifts include the increasing feminization of the union movement, the growing prominence of unions in the public service and services sector and the declining influence of international unions.

Union ranks rose from 2.8 million workers in 1977 to slightly more than four million in 2003. But this 43 per cent growth did not keep pace with increases in employment, resulting in a unionization rate that has slowly declined.

After rising from 32.6 per cent in 1977 to 34.2 per cent in 1987, the unionization rate fluctuated between 30 per cent and 31 per cent over the last 10 years.

The most profound transformation in membership occurred in the mix of men and women. In 1977 women represented 12 per cent of total membership. By 2003 their share had quadrupled to 48 per cent.

In 1977 some 10 per cent of female workers in Canada were unionized. By 2003 this had tripled to 30 per cent. In contrast the rate among men fell from 47 per cent to 31 per cent.

Statistics Canada said this increase in women was the result of several factors:

•the growing population of women in the paid workforce;
•increased presence of women in the heavily unionized public sector;
•their movement into traditionally male-dominated and often heavily unionized industries or occupations;
•the rising unionization among part-time and non-permanent workers (many of whom are women); and
•the expansion of union activity into traditionally female-dominated workplaces, especially in the service sector.

Private sector rates plummet

The rate of unionization in the public sector remained stable at slightly more than 70 per cent during the last three decades, but the rate for the private sector fell from 26 per cent to 18 per cent.

The stability in the public sector prevented the overall rate of unionization from falling below 30 per cent.

The declining share of membership in the goods sector and an increase in the service sector also contributed to the transformation of the union movement. This can be attributed primarily to a shift in the economic structure, resulting in declines in employment in some of the once heavily unionized, male-dominated, goods-producing industries such as manufacturing in favour of the service industries.

As a result the gap in the rate of unionization between the goods sector and the service sector — about nine percentage points in 1987 — had almost disappeared by 2003.

Waning influence of international unions

Statistics Canada said another “profound” change over the past few decades has been the waning influence of international unions headquartered outside of Canada.

In 1962 they accounted for about two-thirds of union membership in Canada. By 2003 this proportion had fallen to a little more than one-quarter.

Little headway in information technology

Unions have made little headway in the fast growing information-technology industries and occupations. Rather, the movement has managed to maintain its overall presence by offsetting losses in the goods sector with successes among employees in small workplaces and among part-time and non-permanent employees. These last two groups have large concentrations of men and women.

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