Union coverage protected Alberta workers during pandemic

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Alberta workers with union coverage were less likely to lose their jobs than those without union coverage.

The federal government recently released their March 2023 job numbers. As I was reviewing the data, I came across information on union coverage in Canada, and I thought I’d take a look at how things look in Alberta.

Union coverage refers to workers who are members of a union, as well as workers who are not union members but are covered by a collective agreement or union contract.

First, here’s what union coverage looks like in every province as of March 2023. Keep in mind that these aren’t seasonally adjusted numbers.

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Total employeesUnion coverage%

According to this, Alberta workers had the lowest union coverage in the country, with only 1 in 4 workers being covered by a union. Ontario workers were second lowest but were more than a full percentage point higher than Alberta.

Workers in Newfoundland and Labrador had the highest union coverage, at just under 40%, and nearly 15 percentage points higher than Alberta workers.

And this isn’t a one-time thing either. Check out union coverage over the last decade.

Mar 2014Mar 2015Mar 2016Mar 2017Mar 2018Mar 2019Mar 2020Mar 2021Mar 2022Mar 2023

As you can see, Alberta is at the bottom of the pack in every March over the last 10 years.

Now, here’s a look Alberta’s union coverage for every month since 2014, not just March.

The decade started out pretty well for workers covered by unions, with coverage trending up until the beginning of 2014. Then it plateaued over the next 3 years, before starting to decline again.

But then we saw a huge spike in union coverage in early 2020, as Alberta was dealing with low oil prices and the start of the pandemic. During that time, union coverage jumped from 24.5% in January to 28.59% over the next 3 months.

Now, it wasn’t because there was a huge union drive or anything.

In January 2020, there were 1,898,300 employees working in Alberta. In April 2020, that had dropped by 324,200 to 1,574,100. That’s a 17.08% decrease.

However, the number of employees with union coverage dropped 15,000 during the same period, from 465,000 to 450,000. That’s a loss of only 3.23%.

Compared to the general population, workers with union coverage were less likely to lose their job during the first 4 months of 2020. Had workers with union coverage seen a similar percentage of job losses, the number of workers no longer employed during that period would’ve nearly reached the 80,000 mark.

It seems as though union coverage provided some protection against job losses.

As public health protections started to be lifted in the province, however, union coverage began to decline to pre-pandemic levels again.

In fact, this past July, the month after the last remaining public health protections were lifted, union coverage dropped to 21.82%, the lowest level since August 2014.

However, that dip was brief, and Alberta workers with union coverage have since returned to the 25% mark, roughly where it was in early 2019, when the UCP took office following the previous provincial election.

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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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