Unionization rates falling

Canadian Megatrends

The Canadian trade union movement grew out of the industrialization of the economy at the end of the 19th Century. At that time, unions were predominately a male domain and remained so until the 1960s. Today, a union member is slightly more likely to be a woman, and working in an office, school or hospital, while factory workers, miners and other blue collar trades have seen their union membership fall over the past quarter century.

The decline in the unionization rate is not a recent phenomenon. In Canada, most of the decline took place in the 1980s and 1990s. Since Statistics Canada began measuring unionization through household surveys, the rate of unionization has fallen from 37.6% in 1981 to 28.8% in 2014. Trends differ by sex, however.

Chart 1 - Unionization rate of employed individuals aged 17 to 64, 1981 to 2014
Description for Chart 1

The title of the graph is "Chart 1 Unionization rate of employed individuals aged 17 to 64, 1981 to 2014"
This is a line chart.
There are in total 34 categories in the horizontal axis. The vertical axis starts at 25 and ends at 45 with ticks every 5 points.
There are 3 series in this graph.
The vertical axis is "percentage."
The units of the horizontal axis are years from 1981 to 2014.
The title of series 1 is "Both sexes."
The minimum value is 28.8 occurring in 2014.
The maximum value is 37.9 occurring in 1984.
The title of series 2 is "Men."
The minimum value is 27.2 occurring in 2014.
The maximum value is 42.4 occurring in 1984.
The title of series 3 is "Women."
The minimum value is 29.5 occurring in 1999.
The maximum value is 32.5 occurring in 1984.

Unionization rate of employed individuals aged 17 to 64, 1981 to 2014
Year Both sexes Men Women
%
1981 37.6 42.1 31.4
1982 37.7 42.2 31.8
1983 37.8 42.3 32.2
1984 37.9 42.4 32.5
1985 37.0 41.1 31.9
1986 36.0 39.9 31.2
1987 34.6 38.3 30.0
1988 36.0 39.8 31.4
1989 35.9 39.2 32.1
1990 35.4 38.7 31.7
1991 34.9 37.9 31.5
1992 34.3 37.0 31.2
1993 33.7 36.2 30.9
1994 33.1 35.3 30.6
1995 32.5 34.4 30.4
1996 31.9 33.6 30.1
1997 31.3 32.7 29.8
1998 31.0 32.0 29.8
1999 30.4 31.2 29.5
2000 30.6 31.2 29.8
2001 30.7 31.2 30.1
2002 30.6 30.5 30.6
2003 30.7 30.9 30.4
2004 30.2 30.1 30.4
2005 30.3 30.1 30.4
2006 29.8 29.3 30.4
2007 29.8 29.3 30.4
2008 29.7 29.0 30.3
2009 29.8 28.6 31.0
2010 30.0 28.6 31.3
2011 29.6 28.3 30.9
2012 29.9 28.5 31.3
2013 29.6 28.2 31.0
2014 28.8 27.2 30.5

Statisticians generally measure union activity in two ways: unionization rate and coverage rate. This Megatrend uses the unionization rate because longer trend data are available for these rates.

Rates fall among men, young workers

The decrease in the unionization rate was most evident among men, falling from just over 42% in 1981 to 27% in 2014, a decline of almost 15 percentage points. The largest decrease—8 percentage points—took place in the 1990s. On account of this decline, the unionization rate of men in 2014 was 2 points below the rate for women, whereas in 1981, it was almost 11 percentage points higher. During the same period, the unionization rate for women was relatively stable, varying between 30% and 32%.

Chart 2 - Unionization rate by sex and age
Description for Chart 2

A. Unionization rate for men, by age group (%)

The title of the graph is "Chart 2 - Unionization rate for men, by age group (%)."
This is a coupled columns chart.
There are in total 5 categories in the horizontal axis. The vertical axis starts at 0 and ends at 60 with ticks every 10 points.
There are 2 series in this graph.
The vertical axis is "percent."
The horizontal axis is "Unionization rate for men, by age group (%)."
The title of series 1 is "1981."
The minimum value is 29.2 and it corresponds to "17 to 24."
The maximum value is 48.6 and it corresponds to "55 to 64."
The title of series 2 is "2014."
The minimum value is 14.9 and it corresponds to "17 to 24."
The maximum value is 33.0 and it corresponds to "55 to 64."

Unionization rate for men, by age group (%)
Age 1981 2014
%
17 to 24 29.2 14.9
25 to 34 43.3 24.9
35 to 44 46.1 28.5
45 to 54 47.8 32.7
55 to 64 48.6 33.0

B. Unionization rate for women, by age group (%)

The title of the graph is "Chart 2 - Unionization rate for women, by age group (%)."
This is a coupled columns chart.
There are in total 5 categories in the horizontal axis. The vertical axis starts at 0 and ends at 40 with ticks every 5 points.
There are 2 series in this graph.
The vertical axis is "percent."
The horizontal axis is "Unionization rate for women, by age group (%)."
The title of series 1 is "1981."
The minimum value is 23.1 and it corresponds to "17 to 24."
The maximum value is 36.3 and it corresponds to "35 to 44."
The title of series 2 is "2014."
The minimum value is 13.4 and it corresponds to "17 to 24."
The maximum value is 35.5 and it corresponds to "45 to 54."

Unionization rate for men, by age group (%)
Age 1981 2014
%
17 to 24 23.1 13.4
25 to 34 34.7 29.8
35 to 44 36.3 34.5
45 to 54 32.9 35.5
55 to 64 29.9 35.2

The fall in the unionization rate was greatest among young workers. The rate for men decreased for every age group, but was especially pronounced in the 25-to-34 and 35-to-44 age groups. The unionization rate for young women also decreased, but to a lesser extent, mainly because the declines in the 1980s and 1990s were offset by gains in the 2000s. Conversely, older women were the lone group to see their rate increase between 1981 and 2014: up 4 percentage points for the 45-to-54 age group and 7 percentage points higher for the 55-to-64 age group.

Employment shifts

One reason for the decline in the unionization rate for young men was the employment shift from industries and occupations with high unionization rates, such as construction and manufacturing, to industries and occupations with lower rates, such as retail trade and professional services. The increase in the unionization rate for older women may be explained by their concentration in industries with a high unionization rate, such as health care and social assistance, education services and public administration.

From 1999 to 2014, public sector unionization rates grew from 70.4% to 71.3%. Private sector rates fell from 18.1% to 15.2% over the same years.

However, employment shifts were not the sole reason for changes in the unionization rate. For example, among men aged 25 to 34, employment shifts were behind less than half of the total decrease in the unionization rate from 1981 to 1998. This means that changes within industries and occupations also played a role.

Rates have fallen in all provinces. In 2014, Alberta had the lowest unionization rates, 20.3%, while Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, at almost 36%, had the highest rates.


Definitions

Unionization rate: the number of employed individuals who are union members as a proportion of the total number of employed individuals within a defined framework (enterprise, occupation, economic sector, etc.).

Coverage rate: the proportion of employed individuals, both union members and non-unionized employees, covered by a collective agreement.

References

Galarneau, D. and T. Sohn. 2013. “Long term trends in unionization,” Insights on Canadian Society, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 75-006-X.

Morissette, R., G. Schellenberg and A. Johnson. 2005. “Diverging trends in unionization,” Perspectives on Labour and Income, Vol. 6, no. 4, April, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 75-001-X.

Riddell, W.C. 1993. “Unionization in Canada and the United States: A Tale of Two Countries,” Small Differences That Matter: Labor Market and Income Maintenance in Canada and the United States, edited by David Card and Richard B. Freeman, University of Chicago Press.

Resource persons

To enquire about the concepts, methods and data quality in this publication, contact Diane Galarneau (613-854-3018), Labour Statistics Division.

 
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