The makeup of Canada’s unionized workforce has changed, according to Statistics Canada.
For most of the 20th Century, the blue-collar male worker was the face of the labour movement. Machinists, miners, auto-workers, steelworkers, construction workers; your average union member was a man working in a manufacturing or trade industry.
But in the last 25 years, that’s changed.
Last week Statistics Canada reported that within union memberships women now have a slight majority over men, and are more likely to be working in an office, school or hospital.
“Contrary to the popular cultural image, which assumes that the typical union member is a white male blue-collar worker, the typical union member today is very likely a woman working in the public sector, and that is a major demographic shift,” explained Stephanie Ross, Associate Professor in the Department of Social Science and Co-Director of the Global Labour Research Centre at York University.
While this change is precipitated, in part, by the growth in public sector union density — from 70 per cent to 71.4 per cent in the last 15 years — it has more to do with a declining unionization rate in male-dominated private sector industries, which shrunk from 18.1 to 15.2 per cent during that same period, as well as changing dynamics within those industries.
“You have job loss in those sectors rather than job growth, and the jobs that are being created in those sectors are increasingly non-union,” said Ross. “And because the public sector is a source of employment for women to a far greater extent than in the parts of the private sector where there are unions, that means that women also constitute an increasing majority of union members.”
“It certainly gives a particular character to the labour movement,” said Ross, “Women have more and more often been at the forefront to defend public services and the jobs that they deliver those services through.”
Statistics Canada first measured unionization through household surveys in 1981, and since then the rate of unionization has fallen from 37.6 per cent to 28.8 per cent in 2014, with more rapid decline taking place in the 1980s and 1990s, but levelling out in recent years.
That decrease has hit men the hardest and the male unionization rate has fallen by almost 15 per cent while the unionization rate among women has held steady around 30 per cent since the 1980s.
But, as Ross explains, that does not necessarily mean that women have increased access to unions.
“The other part of what has driven this shift is that the parts of the private sector that are growing in terms of employment, where women are much more likely to be employed — like food, retail and accommodation — those sectors have very low unionization rates,” said Ross, “So insofar as women have access to unions it’s primarily through the public sector.”
While it’s difficult to predict how these trends will progress, Ross says that there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of unions to expand in those parts of the private sector if union density is to increase in this country.
“Unlike auto manufacturers, hotels can’t really shut down in the face of a unionization drive,” Ross explained. “They are less mobile and in some ways more potentially ‘union-izable’ because employers don’t have that strategy of exit that they do in an economy that allows for manufacturing to be networked across the world.”
Ross also noted that there is unmet demand for unions among young workers.
“Most of the research shows that while young workers’ unionization rates are low and [for young men] in decline, they are also the age group most interested in and open to unionization,” Ross explained. “So there is unmet demand for unionization here, largely because the sectors that young people work in are tough to organize, and because the kinds of jobs they are more likely in now — temporary, part-time, contract, in any sector — are also tough to organize.”
“So that is a key challenge for unions, to figure out out how to unionize the very people that want to be unionized.”
Ella Bedard is rabble.ca‘s labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.