Canada’s ever-shrinking unionized workforce

For decades, the proportion of Canada’s total jobs that unionized jobs made up has been shrinking.

While conducting some research for last week’s news story on Alberta’s employment climate, I came across a dataset at Statistics Canada on jobs since 2001. What specifically stuck out to me was that the jobs were delineated by union and non-union jobs.

So, I thought I’d do a data dive.

First, here’s how the union–non-union jobs break down in Canada for July 2020. FYI, union here means not only workers who are members of a union but also those who aren’t but are covered by a collective agreement.

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Probably not a surprise to anyone, but union jobs are in the minority in Canada, falling somewhere between 1 in 3 jobs and 1 in 4 jobs. The vast majority are non-unionized jobs.

Next, I extracted all the data for union and non-union jobs every July since 2001, and I plotted it onto this graph.

And, well, union jobs not only have made up a smaller portion of total jobs than non-union jobs over the last 20 years, but that portion has been steadily shrinking.

We’ve gone from union jobs making up 31.20% of all the Canadian jobs in 2001 to making up only 29.2% in 2019. And it’s not just a blip. Clearly, that decrease is part of a 20-year trend.

But I was curious if I could find older data. And I did, but it added only an extra 4 years.

Unfortunately, the extra 4 years doesn’t create any better of a picture. It still shows a downward trend, with an even higher starting point: 32.93%. Round that up, and it’s pretty much that 1 in 3 jobs in Canada in 1997 was a union job.

Then I found another source with data going back to 1981. The data isn’t annual, however; yet it does show that the declining trend has been occurring for longer than since 1997. Unionization rates, according to this source, were 37.6% in 1981, 36% in 1986, and 35.9% in 1998.

Over the last 4 decades, unionization has gone from 37.6% of the workforce to 29.2% of the workforce.

Now that we know that the percentage of union jobs keeps going down, how does the actual number of unionized jobs compare against the actual number of non-unionized jobs?

In both of these charts, we can see that the number of unionized jobs has increased, but nowhere close to as much as the increase seen by non-unionized jobs.

In 1997, there were 3,852,500 union jobs and 7,846,000 non-unionized jobs. In 2020, there were 4,690,700 and 11,380,700 respectively. So, union jobs increased by 838,200 over a 24-year period, while non-unionized jobs increased by over 3.5 million.

In other words, union jobs have increased by 22% since 1997, and non-unionized jobs have increased by 45%. Non-unionized jobs have increased at twice the rate that unionized jobs have.

On average, unionized jobs have increased by 34,930 every year since 1997. Non-unionized jobs have increased an average of 147,280 per year. That’s more than 4 times the annual rate of unionized job growth.

And if workers want higher wages and better jobs security, that trend must change.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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