Is The Movement At A Standstill?

Union Efforts and Outcomes

There is a growing perception, among both academics and union activists, that the union movement in Canada is at a standstill. Professor Charlotte Yates from McMaster University recently wrote that: "In the 1990s unions in Canada were relatively successful at rebuilding their membership through organizing and exploiting new opportunities. But in many instances, this progress seems to have stalled in the last 10 years." Many labour analysts agree with this assessment, some citing battle fatigue, while arguing that the movement may be losing its cohesion and larger sense of purpose. As the Toronto and York Region Labour Council has noted, "Canada's labour movement needs to have a frank and detailed discussion about what it will take to build power in the 21st century."

The labour council's action agenda explains how the labour movement has been facing a new environment, one that includes mass plant closures and the relentless privatization of public assets and services, with global warming as a backdrop, "threatening to deprive much of humankind of a secure future." Is the union movement in Canada getting stagnant in the face of these challenges? To answer that question we need to move
beyond perceptions and, instead, focus on assessing tangible evidence regarding union efforts and outcomes.

Much of the thinking on union trends, as University of Montreal professor Gregor Murray notes, is based on "myths, enigmas, and half truths." One enigma relates to the pattern and scope of change within unions. Just how much are unions reinventing themselves to meet this new environment, which includes a dramatic increase in part-time and service sector work? Several years ago Gregor Murray and I, in partnership with the federal Department of Human Resources and Social Development (HRSDC), conducted a national survey of innovation and change in Canadian unions. The survey revealed that a lot is happening in Canadian unions. In aggregate, the pattern and scope of change appear impressive, showing many changes in organizational structures, approaches, strategies, and support for organizing, servicing and rank and file involvement.

At the same time, the incidence of change is highly uneven, concentrated in a few large unions. The change also remains fragmented, lacking a coherent vision, an integrated strategy or action plan to guide the change process. For example, the survey found that unions are devoting considerable efforts and resources to improving rank and file communication, increasing member education and training, and to enhancing the representation of new social identity groups within their structures. The same unions are, however, less likely to engage in coordinated political action, to implement activist servicing (contract administration by activists such as stewards, rather than paid staff), or to radically change their organizing strategies and targets.

Another enigma relates to this question: Is the labour movement in Canada growing or shrinking? There is a widely held belief that unions in Canada have adjusted relatively well to the new environment since, unlike in many western countries, in particular the U.S., union membership levels in Canada have been stable or have risen slightly.

This "membership illusion" ignores the fact that even as the number of Canadian union members has grown, membership
as a proportion of the work force (union density) has been steadily declining for more than two decades. The decline has been most pronounced in the private sector, the source of employment for over three-quarters of Canadians.

There is a general consensus in the union renewal literature that the changes in membership density, including levels and composition of membership and the percentage of workers organized, are the most visible indicators of union strength and effectiveness. Density changes are highly correlated with relative bargaining and political power, as well as the capacity of organizations to adapt to changing circumstances.

Trends and Pattern of Union Density
Union density in Canada peaked in the 1980s at about 38 per cent, and has been falling gradually since then, slipping below 30 per cent in 2007. The density rate has been stable for adult women and older workers but has fallen significantly for men and younger age groups. Similarly, while unionization in the public sector has remained high, decline in private sector density has been widespread across all age groups, by gender, job tenure, job status (part-time/full-time), education and provinces and among all income categories.

The long-term trends have become even more striking over the past 10 years. Based on Statistics Canada numbers, union membership between 1997-2007 actually increased 19 per cent, or by 660,000, the largest increase since the 1970s. However, total employment grew faster than union membership, rising by 23 per cent over the same period. Thus, union density declined despite the impressive membership growth. The continuing losses in the private sector and male unionization rates were most noticeable.

What do these membership and density trends and patterns indicate about the overall health of the labour movement in Canada? On the bright side, increased union membership, albeit very small, in private services (such as retail trade, financial services and accommodation and food services), small workplaces, and among women, part-time, non-permanent workers and new hires is an encouraging sign, demonstrating that unions are beginning to pay attention to organizing the vast potential of unorganized non-traditional workers. But the progress here is slow and minuscule, not enough to stop the gradual erosion of union density. Overall the data appear to portray a picture of a stagnant labour movement with declining density in a wide range of areas (particularly in private service industries with expanding employment), and with a false sense of security created by continuing strength in the public sector.

In fact, nearly three-quarters of the membership growth over the 1997-2007 period is accounted for by the public sector, especially the education and health services. The impressive increase in membership growth and density among women is almost entirely a public sector effect, where women account for a substantial share of employment.

It needs to be emphasized that a vast majority of women work in the private service sector, where union density continues to be very low.

Trends in Organizing Activity
Organizing the unorganized workers is critical to the survival of the labour movement. It is particularly important in the current environment where employment in non-union workplaces is growing faster than in unionized workplaces, and unions find themselves running just to stay in the same place. Increased organizing is required just to keep density constant, let alone to grow.

It is difficult to accurately assess the effectiveness of organizing activity due to a lack of adequate statistics. While all provinces (except for PEI) collect data annually on certifications granted, very few provide the number of workers covered by new certifications. Preliminary estimates based on information from labour relations boards and the database developed by professor Susan Johnson of the University of Waterloo indicate that both the average number of workers covered by new certifications and the organizing rate (newly organized workers as a percentage of the non-union workforce) have been declining since 1989, coinciding with the fall in union density noted in studies conducted by academics and Statistics Canada. More significantly, the organizing rate over recent years (2000-2005) is now less than one-half of the average in the 1980s and early 1990s. Data also suggests that the decline in organizing is pervasive across jurisdictions and is not limited to the number of newly organized employees, but is also evident in the number of certifications granted and the number of applications filed, an indicator of organizing effort.

These statistics belie the rhetoric about organizing being the number one priority for unions.

There could be host of explanations for the decline in organizing activity, including intense employer opposition and the growing number of provincial governments who have modified their labour laws to make organizing difficult. But the explanation of key concern is Canadian unions' apparently half-hearted approach and commitment to organizing the non-unionized workers. This concern is supported by the national union survey that I mentioned earlier. The survey revealed that only about one-half of unions, mostly large unions, consider organizing a priority. Fewer than one-half have a person exclusively responsible for organizing, or have specific organizing targets. The survey found that unions give more importance to organizing public/semi-public services where they are already strong and where employer opposition is less intense, rather than private services, which are difficult to organize. Organizing expenditures are also very low, particularly in relation to the difficult and challenging task. The average, according to the survey, is just seven per cent of total expenditures. Very few unions have an integrated strategy of organizing based on a coordinated program of action involving strategic targeting, expanded resources, and membership education and training for capacity building. And unlike national labour bodies and federations in other countries, the Canadian Labour Congress and most provincial federations do not get involved in organizing in any shape or form.

Trends and patterns of union density and organizing activity are clear signs of stagnation and complacency. While some unions are doing better than others, the Canadian labour movement as whole appears to be at a standstill. Yet there does not appear to be any sense of impending crisis, partly because of the steady growth of unionized public sector employment feeding the illusion of stability, and the impressive increases in membership of many large unions through mergers. The continuing decline in private sector density (now less than around 17 per cent, nearly one-half of the average in early 1980s) indicates that unions in Canada could be facing a future similar to the United States or Australia. The labour movement is likely to find itself further marginalized unless steps are taken to accelerate the multi-dimensional process of union renewal through more strategic thinking and an integrated program of action.

Pradeep Kumar is Professor Emeritus of Industrial Relations at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.