Major shifts in composition of Ontario labour movement

The last ten years has seen a growth of 240,000 in unionized public sector workers in Ontario.  That's an increase of 35% (from 679,000 to 919,000) according to data in a new report from the Canadian Labour Congress.

Most of this growth, however, is simply due to growth in the public sector labour force, rather than an increase in the percentage of   public sector workers who are organized (or "public sector union density").  The percentage of public sector workers who are unionized increased only modestly, from 68.6% to 70.7%.  That is still a lower public sector union density than exists across all of Canada, which now sits at 74.9% (a small increase from 73.9% a decade ago).  

Despite the modest increase in public sector union density, the rate of unionization of all Ontario workers actually fell slightly, from 28.3% to 27.9%. This is due to the rather sharp decline in the rate of private sector unionization: from 18.1% to 14.9%.  

Not only did the rate of private sector unionization fall, so did the total number of private sector unionized workers, from 711,100 to 640,000. While the trend downwards in private sector union density occurred pretty much over the entire decade, the drop in the actual number of private sector unionists happened exclusively in recent years -- 2008 and 2009 (with a very slight recovery in 2010).  

Manufacturing and the resource extraction industries saw sharp declines in union membership and union density.  

With these trends, two new developments are evident. First, slightly more union members are now women rather than men.  Second, there are  more public sector union members than private sector union members.  While in 2000, there were 711,100 private sector unionists and  680,000 public sector unionists, there are now only 640,000 private sector union members but 919,000 public sector members,  i.e. there are 43.5% more public sector union members than private sector union members.

Both of these are firsts for the labour movement in Ontario. 

But the decline in private sector unionization (especially in the historical core of the labour movement in manufacturing and resource extraction) bodes ill for public sector workers.  Public sector workers have a vital interest in the health of private sector unionization: without them, we are much weaker.  

The labour movement needs to find ways to organize new categories of private sector workers.


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