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August 2004
Vol. 5, no. 8

Perspectives on Labour and Income

The union movement in transition
Ernest B. Akyeampong

Membership in a union offers several advantages. Not only do unionized workers generally receive higher wages (Fang and Verma 2002), they are also more likely to enjoy non-wage benefits such as coverage in employer-sponsored pension, dental or medical plans (Akyeampong 2002). In addition, their greater accessibility to a grievance or dispute settlement system is thought to provide greater protection against exploitation, abuse or unfair treatment by their employer (Akyeampong 2003).

In light of these advantages, the continuous increase in union membership over the past decades is not surprising: the union ranks rose from 2.8 million in 1977 to just over 4 million in 2003 (Chart A). However, as in many other Western industrialized countries, growth has not kept pace with employment increases.1 As a result, the unionization rate (or density)—the proportion of employees belonging to a union—has fallen over the years. After rising slightly from 32.6% in 1977 to 34.2% in 1987, it drifted downwards, oscillating between 30% and 31% over most of the past decade (Chart A).2

Although the unionization rate did not change much, the same cannot be said for the membership mix by sex, industry, job status, and so forth. Several, often interrelated factors account for the changing profile of union membership—notably, employee demographics; labour laws and regulations, especially provincial; industry shifts, especially from goods to services; the occupation mix of the workforce; and the effectiveness of union recruitment and retention.

Using various sources, this article first looks at how union membership has evolved over the past several decades, including some of the factors behind the changes (see Data sources). Then, using data from the post-1996 Labour Force Survey, it details where the union movement has gained or lost membership and density in recent years.

Long-term trends

Constructing a historical profile of union membership in Canada is not easy, partly because no consistent and all-encompassing series exist. Aggregate union membership estimates date from 1911; some indicators are available from the 1960s and 1970s (membership by sex and regional dispersion), but others start in the 1980s or later (age, industry, occupation, public3 versus private sector, and full- versus part-time work.)

Undoubtedly, the biggest and most profound transformation in union membership lies in the mix of men and women. From a mere 12% in 1977, the share of women has risen steadily to nearly half (48%) in 2003 (Chart B). This extraordinarily strong and growing presence is accounted for by several, often interrelated factors. These include the growing proportion of women in the paid workforce; their increased presence in the heavily unionized public sector; their movement into traditionally male-dominated and often heavily unionized industries or occupations such as construction; the rising unionization among part-time and non-permanent workers; and the expansion of union activity into traditionally female-dominated and hitherto non- or less-unionized workplaces, especially in the service sector (Akyeampong 1998).

The growing number of women in the union movement is reflected in changing density rates by sex. For women, the rate rose steadily, from 10% in 1977 to 30% in 2003. For men, the reverse occurred. Partly in line with the changing structure of the Canadian economy and labour force, the men's rate fell steadily, from 47% in 1977 to 31% in 2003. In summary, while women's unionization rate was less than one-quarter of men's in 1977, the two were virtually identical by 2003.

Another notable transformation has been the declining share of membership in the goods sector and an increase in the service sector. This can be attributed primarily to a shift in the economic structure, resulting in employment drops in the once heavily unionized, male dominated,˙goods-producing industries, especially manufacturing, in favour of the service industries. In 1987, the goods sector accounted for roughly one-third of total union membership, compared with only one-quarter in 2003 (Chart C). In terms of union density, the gap between the goods sector and the service sector in 1987 (40% versus 31%) had almost disappeared by 2003 (31% versus 30%).

Regionally, union membership share did not change much over the past several decades, remaining roughly in line with regional shares of national employee counts (Table 1). However, estimated union membership can sometimes present a false portrait of union strength in an area. The density rate is a better measure for comparison. Quebec recorded the highest rate throughout the period (38% in 2003). Other regions mostly registered declines, the steepest being in British Columbia. Ontario's 27% was the lowest rate in 2003.

Also noteworthy have been changes in representation among full- and part-time workers, and in the public and the private sectors. Part-time workers saw both a share increase (from 8% to 14%) and a rise in density (from 18% to 23%) between 1984 and 2003 (Table 2). The increases were widespread. The reverse was true for full-time workers, who saw their share decline (92% to 86%) as well as their density (39% to 32%).

During the 1960s, the rapid expansion of government and the extension of bargaining rights to most of its employees saw the public sector take a more prominent position in the union movement (Eaton 1976; Galarneau 1996). Since then, the influence of this group has continued to grow, its representation rising from 42% in 1984 to 53% in 2003. In terms of density, the rate among public-sector workers (just over 70%) changed little, while falling from 26% to 18% among private-sector workers. Indeed, stability in the public sector prevented overall union density in Canada from falling below 30%.4

Another profound change over the past several decades has been the waning influence of international unions (those with headquarters outside Canada). An important objective of the Corporations and Labour Unions Returns Act (CALURA) was to monitor the extent and effect of international unions on organized labour in Canada. The available CALURA data show a dramatic and steady shift away from international to national unions between 1962 and 1995 (1995 being the last collection year under CALURA) (Mainville and Olinek 1999). In 1962, international unions accounted for about two-thirds of union membership in Canada; by 1995, this had fallen to 29% (Chart D). In contrast, national union representation rose from 21% to 57%. The decline of international unions resulted mainly from defections to competing national unions and breakaways to form new autonomous national unions—the breakaway of the 136,000-strong Auto Workers Union Canadian membership in 1986 being notable (Statistics Canada 1994).

Throughout the period under review, the share of government unions (consisting of federal and provincial government employees) stayed in the 12% to 17% range.5 After 1995, the international union share declined slightly to a little over 27% in 2003 (HRDC 2003).6

Recent gains and losses

For simplicity, only 1997 and 2003 (the first and latest years) of the revised Labour Force Survey series are shown, but the directions (or algebraic signs) of changes between these two years are reasonably representative of recent trends (not shown) in union strength by different worker groups.

Changes in union density form the basis for comparing the trends of different worker groups.7 A positive change signifies a gain in union presence, and vice versa. To facilitate comparison, data are presented in descending order of change between 1997 and 2003.

Overall, union density decreased by 0.5 percentage points between 1997 and 2003 (Table 3)—not because of a loss in membership, but because employment growth (16.7%) surpassed the gain in union membership (14.8%). Continuing the trend established over the past several decades, the rate rose by 0.7 points among women employees, but fell by 1.6 points among men. The largest increase occurred among youth (15 to 24, up 2.7 points). Workers in all other age groups (except 55 and over) saw some losses, with the largest decline among those 45 to 54 (-2.8 points).

Although the workforce has become more educated, only those with some postsecondary education recorded a slight growth in unionization. All other groups, including workers holding university degrees, recorded declines. The large fall in the rate among those with less than grade 9 education coincides with a large decline in union membership among some blue-collar workers.

Losses of union strength in the goods-producing industries in recent years were not offset by gains in the service-producing industries—both sectors lost ground between 1997 and 2003. While the service-sector loss was slight (-0.2 points), the goods sector was down a sizeable 1.6 points.

Workers in the fast-growing information technology industries appear less attracted to the union movement. Many do not feel they fit into the typical 9 to 5 mould (Galarneau 1994). They often work atypical hours, have several workplaces (including home), and own stock in their company (Luffman 2003).

Union density increased in the already heavily unionized public sector (2.3 points), but fell slightly in the private sector.

At a more detailed industry level, the biggest gains occurred in public administration, particularly among workers in local government (5.5 percentage points)—the result of employment falling more than union membership. Federal government workers also saw a large gain (3.2 points), while the rate among their provincial counterparts remained almost unchanged (Table 4). Construction was the other major industry to register a significant increase (2.8 points).

Union density losses of more than 2 percentage points were registered for workers in non-durable and durable manufacturing; information, culture and recreation; and natural resource industries.

In terms of occupation, by far the largest inroads occurred among workers in the strongly growing childcare and home support field (7.2 percentage points), followed by those in other already heavily unionized health occupations, such as health support staff (3.3 points), nursing (2.9 points), and professional health workers (2.1 points) (Table 5). Significant gains were also made in the recruitment of workers in construction trades (2.9 points), and in culture and recreation (2.2 points). The largest losses were recorded among technical health workers—mostly health, medical, dental, and veterinary technologists and therapists (-4.1 points)—and among those in other trades (-3.1 points). Other occupations registering more than a 2-point decline were clerical, management, and natural and applied sciences, the last having a sizeable concentration of information-technology workers.

Job status and workplace size
In a drive for greater revenue and influence, union leaders have succeeded in making significant gains in recent years in many hitherto less-unionized workplaces and work groups. For example, density rose among part-time workers (1.9 points), non-permanent employees (2.4 points), and persons with short job tenure (less than five years) (Table 6). These increases prevailed by sex, age, industry and occupation. The rate fell among full-time workers, persons in permanent jobs, and those with tenure longer than five years.

Similarly, recruiting efforts aimed at hitherto less-unionized smaller workplaces appeared to yield positive results. Between 1997 and 2003, union density rose in workplaces with less than 100 employees, and fell heavily in larger ones.

Only three provinces—Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and Quebec—saw unions succeed in raising their presence (Table 7). Except for Alberta where the rate remained unchanged, all provinces recorded declines, with the largest (about 1.5 points) being registered in New Brunswick and British Columbia.


The past several decades have seen significant shifts in union membership. This is the result of changes in workforce demographics, labour laws, and economic structure, as well as recruitment success or failure. Among the notable shifts have been the increasing feminization of the movement, the growing prominence of public- and service-sector groups, and the waning influence of international unions.

In recent years, other significant trends have emerged. Unions have made little headway in the fast-growing information-technology industries or occupations. Rather, the movement has managed to maintain its overall density by offsetting losses in the goods sector with successes among employees in small workplaces and among part-time and non-permanent employees. The last two groups have large concentrations of youth and women who, not surprisingly, have also seen their unionization rates rise in recent years.

Data sources

For over three decades (1962-1995), the Corporations and Labour Unions Returns Act (CALURA) was the only continuous source of union membership data by sex, industry and province. The Act required each national and international union with 100 or more members resident in Canada to submit annual financial and membership information to the federal government. Statistics Canada was charged with administering the Act. The Act was amended in 1995, removing the reporting requirement for unions. The final published CALURA data therefore relate to 1995 (Mainville and Olinek 1999).

In January 1997, the redesigned Labour Force Survey (LFS) began to collect and publish monthly, dimensionally enriched, membership and coverage estimates—by sex, age, province, industry, occupation, firm size, education, wage rate, etc. (Coverage includes the roughly 2% of employees who are not union members but whose terms of employment are covered by collective agreements.) A comparison of CALURA and LFS estimates (and other household surveys) suggests that overall density rates are marginally higher under CALURA, but that the trends are fairly similar (Galarneau 2003).

Differences emerge for a number of reasons:

  • For CALURA, the reference period was December 31 of each year; the LFS annual estimates are the weighted averages of the weekly data collected around the middle of each month.

  • CALURA was a census of unions with 100 or more members; the LFS is based on a sample of households and imposes no restrictions on union size.

  • Multiple jobholders could belong to different unions in each job and be counted twice in CALURA; in the LFS they are counted only once, and if the main job is not unionized, they are not counted at all.

    Some retirees and pensioners were included in CALURA; they are excluded in the LFS.

The 1984 estimates for public- and private-sector, full- and part-time workers (CALURA did not collect these details) come from the Survey of Union Membership, an LFS-supplement conducted in co-operation with Labour Canada in October 1984. As such, they have some seasonality drawbacks.

Other Statistics Canada Surveys collecting unionization data include the Labour Market Activity Survey (LMAS, 1984-1990), the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID, started in 1993), and the Survey of Work Arrangements (SWA, 1991 and 1995). Both LMAS and SLID data suffer from small sample size and age cutoffs that differ from CALURA and the LFS. The SWA data also have some seasonality drawbacks. However, the questions identifying union membership and coverage in each survey are similar.

In the post-1996 LFS, two questions are used to identify union membership and coverage:

  • Is the person a union member?

  • Is the person covered by a union contract or collective agreement?


  1. For example, in the United States, union membership declined steadily—from a high of 20.1% in 1983 to 12.9% in 2003.

  2. The drop in union density between CALURA (pre-1996) and the LFS (post-1996) is probably mostly due to differences in survey design and coverage (see Data sources for details).

  3. The public sector comprises government, Crown corporations, and publicly funded schools and hospitals.

  4. Unionization in the public sector in the United States pales in comparison with Canada. In 2003, the U.S. rate (37.2%) was just over half of Canada's (72.0%). While public-sector rates have remained virtually intact in both countries over the past couple of decades, the U.S. private-sector rate has witnessed a precipitous fall, from roughly 16% in 1983 to 8.2% in 2003, compared with a moderate fall in Canada (from 25.9% in 1984 to 18.2% in 2003). The result was a much steeper decline in the overall unionization rate in the U.S., from 20.1% in 1983 to only 12.9% in 2003, while the Canadian rate remained in the 30% to 34% range.

  5. In reality, the government unions (composed of federal or provincial government employees) are national unions since they are headquartered in Canada.

  6. To a large extent, HRDC collapsed CALURA's national and government unions into one, labelled simply as 'national unions.'

  7. The density is the product of the interaction between the change in union membership (the numerator for a given worker group) and the change in employees (the denominator for the same group).


  • Akyeampong, Ernest B. 1998. "The rise of unionization among women." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue 75-001-XPE) 10, no. 4 (Winter): 30-43.

  • ---. 2002. "Unionization and fringe benefits." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue 75-001-XPE) 14, no. 3 (Autumn): 42-46.

  • ---. 2003. "Unionization and the grievance system." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue 75-001-XPE) 15, no. 3 (Autumn): 31-37.

  • Eaton, J.K. 1976. Union growth in the sixties. Economics and Research Branch, Canada Department of Labour. Ottawa.

  • Fang, Tony and Anil Verma. 2002. "Union wage premium." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue 75-001-XPE) 14, no. 4 (Winter): 17-23.

  • Galarneau, Diane. Union membership—Transition from CALURA to the Labour Force Survey. Staff report no. 02-2003E. Statistics Canada, Labour and Household Survey Analysis Division. Available through the author.

  • ---. 1994. "Working 9 to 5." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue 75-001-XPE) 6, no. 2 (Summer): 40-44.

  • ---. 1996. "Unionized workers." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue 75-001-XPE) 8, no. 1 (Spring): 43-52.

  • Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC). 2003. "Union membership in Canada—2003." Workplace Gazette 6, no. 3 (Fall): 40-47.

  • Luffman, Jacqueline. 2003. "Taking stock of equity compensation." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue 75-001-XPE) 15, no. 2 (Summer): 26-33.

  • Mainville, Diane and Carey Olinek. 1999. "Unionization in Canada: A retrospective." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue 75-001-XPE) 11, no. 2 (Summer). Supplement.

  • Statistics Canada. 1994. Annual report of the Minister of Industry, Science and Technology under the Corporations and Labour Unions Returns Act. Part II, Labour unions, 1992. Catalogue no. 71-202-XPB. Ottawa.

Full article in PDF

Ernest B. Akyeampong is with the Labour and Household Surveys Analysis Division. He can be reached at (613) 951-4624 or

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