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A CUPE 3903 strike in Toronto. [Photo © The OFL Communications Department, under a Creative Commons Licence.]

Unionized workers continue to earn demonstrably more than their non-unionized counterparts. But union membership is falling in the country, and has been since the 1980s.

Though losses have slowed since 1999, union membership continues to steadily decline in Canada, with some industries facing a heavier decrease than others.

Specific groups such as younger workers under the age of 25 continue to experience lower rates of unionization, as do Canadian males overall.

Figures from statistics Canada indicate that falling rates began in the early 1980s. These rates fell nearly ten per cent across the country between 1981 and 2014.

Declining unionization rates are a general theme for a range of countries, said Bryan Evans, a professor in the department of politics and public administration at Ryerson University.

The emergence of more neoliberal economic polices in the 1990s impacted the relationships between capital and labour, he added.

Decline in specific industries 

Construction, manufacturing, forestry, fishing, mining, oil and gas as well as all good producing industries in general have faced decline.

Manufacturing has migrated to lower cost jurisdictions, which is a factor leading to a decline in union membership, said Evans, also the director of the centre for policy innovation.

“Businesses have reorganized in a way that they have contracted out production,” he said. “They’ve created smaller workplaces, and many are not unionized.”

Between 1999 and 2012, the rate of unionization for all goods producing industries fell by four per cent.

Mining in northern Ontario has shifted, as large mining companies have smaller entities that employ less people, Evans added.

Those working for small businesses like smaller retail and hospitality environments are less likely to unionize.

“The era of the big, highly capital intensive workplace hasn’t gone away-it’s just less,” he said.

Wage a factor

Comparing the average weekly income of the industries selected shows some interesting facts. Employees in the goods producing industries, construction and information and cultural industries take home among the most in income while also being strongly organized.

But the service industries and education services, which are the two most unionized groups, also make the least. Meanwhile, financial and insurance professionals are high earners, but are the least organized workforce surveyed.

For most of the work forces that are on the middle of the wage spectrum, the more organized, the better chance for higher pay.

Wages in general are going up in Canada, but more for some than others. The average wage is increasing at a faster rate than the median wage, which measures the income of the average Canadian. This indicates that the highest earners’ incomes are increasing by a greater margin than those of the middle class.

In 2014, the median Canadian earned $32,800, a relatively solid income, but not enough to live comfortably in many of the larger cities.

The average among Canadians that same year was $43,600.

Public vs. private sectors


The public sector continues to see steady union participation, while the private sector declines.

Public sector organizations tend to be larger employers, creating an environment more conducive to unionization, said Evans.


Women have kept a steady unionization rate in Canada while rates continue to fall for men.

The rate of unionization for men fell faster than the overall rate- declining more than 15 per cent since the early 1980s.

Women make up a good part of the public sector, meaning they make up the largest percentage of union members, said Evans.

“The public sector is a place where you find large numbers of women in generally good jobs,” he said.

For women by age group, the rate of unionization has been near the same, or more than the rate of unionization in 1981 depending on the age group.

Statistics Canada research on unionization decline reported that the main reason for the decline in male unionization rates in the last 30 years might be due to a shift between the industries they are employed in.

Industries like construction and manufacturing have higher unionization rates traditionally than retail trades or professional services, according to the report.


Unionization rates here decline across all sectors, but youth in particular have declined by a large margin since 1981. 

Statistics Canada also found that full-time work and tenure in a company or industry led to higher unionization rates. The absence of these factors for a younger demographic may lead to lower unionization rates.

Lower levels of education also caused unionization rates to be lower, according to the report.

Younger workers entering a work environment that is less conducive to unionization — smaller businesses — is a factor leading towards lower union membership rates, said Evans.

By province 

Specific provinces have traditionally higher unionization rates than others.

Quebec continues to have a high rate due to more liberal labour legislation and a larger public sector, said Evans.

“Labour legislation might not be so friendly in other provinces,” he said.

Ontario does not have a large number of public sector employees per capita, leading to a lower rate, he said.


Unionization rates continue to face a global decline, while some countries continue to have stronger labour unions.


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