Commentary,  PowerShare,  Trade Unions

Maclean’s Annual Chartbook: A Surprising Rebound in Canadian Union Density

Each December, Maclean’s magazine publishes a compendium of charts, prepared by a range of economists and financial analysts, highlighting the most important trends to watch in the coming year. This year’s Charts to Watch collection featured a contribution from Centre for Future Work Director Jim Stanford on the recent rebound in the proportion of Canadian workers who belong to a union.

The chart draws on previous Centre for Future Work research into the resilience of Canadian trade union membership, which has been more stable than union density in many other industrial countries.

A unionization rebound

Union Coverage
Source: Statistics Canada Table 14-10-0069-01. 2020 first 9 months.

Canada’s trade unions have fought for years to maintain their foothold in an economy being reshaped by global competitive pressures, smaller workplaces, and the rise of precarious work. Now, however, there are early signs that union power may be turning around – and the COVID-19 pandemic is part of the story. This chart shows union coverage in the overall labour market: the proportion of all employed Canadians (including self-employed) covered by union contracts. Union coverage eroded gradually since the turn of the century, from around 32 per cent down to just over 30 per cent. Canadian unions have hung onto their members better than in most industrial countries, but the trend was still negative. In 2019, however, union coverage ticked slightly upward. And this year, with the pandemic, coverage increased sharply: to 31.4 per cent over the first nine months of the year, the highest in a decade.

The pandemic has had several effects that boost union coverage. Public sector jobs have become relatively more important; union coverage is higher in these jobs. Workers with union protection were less likely to lose their jobs during the COVID-19 shutdowns (thanks to stronger job security provisions), so they make up a larger share of remaining employment. Finally, new health risks and other challenges of working in a pandemic have spurred many workers – in long term care centres, restaurants and cafes, grocery stores, and more – to seek protection of a union. Renewed union influence would help to improve wages, conditions, and job security as Canada’s labour market builds back after COVID-19.

This graph and commentary originally appeared in Maclean’s magazine.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.