A Look at Unionization Rate in Canada in Light of This Year’s Labour Day

Labour Day originated in the labour union movements of the 1800s as a way to celebrate the social and economic advancements and to pay tribute to the driving force of our economy. The history of Labour Day continues to be connected with organized labour. Initially, the first unofficial “Labour Days” in Canada were actually protests against a law that made it a crime to be a member of a union. In 1872, this law was abolished, but various union protests and parades continued, and there was pressure to make Labour Day a national holiday. In 1894, the federal government declared Labour Day a national day of recognition for workers across the country.

This year, Labour Day falls on Monday September 1, 2014. All provinces and territories observe this holiday. Government bodies and agencies as well as many businesses are closed on Labour Day.

Employees are given a day off with regular pay or public holiday pay (depending on the province or territory of employment). If the employee is required to work on the holiday, the employee must be paid regular wages and get a substituted day off with pay at a later date (depending on the province or territory).

We should note that Labour Day is also celebrated in other countries. Labour Day is an occasion to campaign for and celebrate workers’ rights during parades and picnics organized by trade unions.

But how are unions faring in the 21st century?

Today’s workplace is very different from that of the 1800s. The new economy is powered by technology, fueled by information and driven by knowledge, and many question the relevancy of the labour movement in the 21st century and whether unions are meeting the challenges of the globalized world.

According to the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, unions in Canada have adjusted relatively well to the new environment, and union membership levels have been stable or have risen slightly. To some, however, that is an illusion; even as the total number of union members in Canada has increased, union membership as a proportion of the workforce (union density) has been steadily declining for more than two decades. The decline has been most pronounced in the private sector, where over three-quarters of Canadians earn their living.

A recent study by the Workplace Information and Research Division of the Labour Program confirms that unionization rates are up slightly.

From 2012 to 2013, there was a 1.5 percent increase in the percentage of non-agricultural employees covered by collective agreements in Canada (a total of 4,735,367 workers). The average union was slightly larger over the same period, with over 46 percent of the unionized workforce represented by only eight unions, all of which are national (69.5 percent) or international (25 percent). Among the labour congresses in Canada, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) represented the largest share of workers covered by collective agreements at 69.2 percent in 2013.

The CLC believes that unions continue to play a major role in making Canada a more equal and democratic society. The annual “Union Advantage” study shows how much better life is for unionized workers across the country. On average, unionized workers across Canada earn $5.17 per hour more than non-union workers; women in unions earn $6.89 per hour more and get paid more fairly; and young workers (aged 14 to 24) earn $3.16 per hour more when they work under the protection of a collective agreement. The CLC provides more information and a provincial breakdown of the union advantage on its website.

Interestingly, the ongoing effects of standard union practices on general employer practices (i.e., higher wages, better working conditions, etc.), tend to reduce the need for unionism, adding fuel to the disagreements about unions’ importance in our day and age. No matter the studies and the numbers, governments and employers will always have their reasons to oppose unions, but it’s hard to argue with the advances in working conditions that unions have fostered in countries around the world.

This said, have a great and safe labour day weekend!

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