Union membership on the rise

Private sector service workers main area of union growth

There were about 60,000 more unionized workers in Canada as of Jan. 1, 2006, compared to the year before, according to Statistic Canada’s annual survey on union membership. This represents about 30.8 per cent of the total number of workers in non-agricultural paid employment (or 25.6 per cent of the total civilian labour force).

This figure is a slight increase over the 30.7 per cent (or 25.5 per cent of the total civilian workforce) reported for 2005. About 20 per cent of employees in the private sector belong to a union as compared to close to 80 per cent in the public sphere.

Statistics Canada has conducted an annual survey on union membership — also known as union density — as far back as 1990 by compiling data provided by unions and labour organizations. Since then, the highest ratio of union membership among non-agricultural workers was 36.1 per cent, reached in 1994, while the highest ratio of union membership in the civilian labour force as a whole was 28.7 per cent, as reported for 1990.

Several public service unions showed an increase in membership — especially the teachers’ unions in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia and the nurses’ unions in Ontario and Quebec — chiefly as a result of provincial governments in those jurisdictions increasing the funding for hiring.

But the main area of union growth was in unions representing service workers in the private sector. The Service Employees’ International Union reported 85,000 members as of Jan. 1, 2006, up from 78,000 the year before. Close to half of this increase resulted when the Brewery, General and Professional Workers Union joined SEIU. The United Food and Commercial Workers gained 3,000 for a total of 233,000 in January 2006. The Christian Labour Association, whose controversial labour relations philosophy has angered some unions, reported growing from 30,000 to 38,000 members — with about 2,000 of those working in construction at the oil sands in Fort McMurray, Alta.

Membership in several unions representing workers associated with the manufacturing and forestry industries was static. The Canadian Auto Workers union stalled at 265,000 members; the Steelworkers at 280,000; and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers at 150,000.

Several unions showed significant declines. The Teamsters’ membership fell from 125,000 to 120,000. The Laborers’ International Union, plagued by internal strife, dropped from 85,000 members to 72,000. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) fell by 3,000 to 39,000 as a result of the loss of manufacturing jobs, according to union vice-president Dave Ritchie. (A membership drive in the first half of 2006 restored about 1,000 IAMAW memberships, many of which are in the service sector.)

By comparison, in the United States in 2005, 12.5 per cent of wage and salary workers were union members, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The union membership rate has declined from a high of 20.1 per cent in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data was available. At 36.5 per cent in 2005, the unionization rate for government workers was more than four times the rate for private industry workers, at 7.8 per cent.

Lorna Harris is the assistant editor of Canadian HR Reporter’s sister publication CLV Reports, newsletters that report on collective bargaining and other issues in labour relations. She can be reached at (416) 298-5141 ext. 2617 or [email protected].

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