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Public Sector Unionization Grows

The composition of the labour movement has fundamentally changed over the last twenty years. The article below reviews dramatic changes in public and private sector unionization and some surprising differences that have emerged between Ontario and the rest of Canada. Potential for growth is possible, even in the public sector.

Ontario has 1.3 million public sector workers and currently 943,000 of them are covered by a union. That means that 72.2% of public sector employees have union coverage.   

Since 1997, public sector union density has modestly increased from about 70% to 72% of total public sector employees.  With a significant increase in public sector employment also occurring over that period, there has been an increase in public sector union coverage from 652,000 to 943,000 employees– about a 47% increase in 19 years.

Ontario union  membership 1997-2016

That still leaves another 363,000  unorganized public sector employees. Assuming that 10% of public sector employees are management (130,000) then there would be roughly 233,000 public sector workers still to organize in the province. In other words, maximum public sector union growth is about 25% (assuming no further increases in public sector employment).
In contrast, there are still about 4 million private sector workers who do not have union coverage – almost seven times the current level of private sector union coverage.  Consequently, there are currently about 50% more public sector workers with union coverage in the province than private sector workers in Ontario (943,000 versus 631,000). 

Union coverage in Ontario as a whole is 26.7% -- down from 29.9% in 1997.  The current level of 26.7% is significantly below the Canada-wide average of 30.4%.  If Ontario was extracted from the Canada-wide average, the gap would be even larger, with the rest of Canada at 32.6% union coverage. So there is almost a six percent gap between Ontario and the rest of Canada.

Declining union density in Ontario and Canada

As far as the public sector is concerned there are two basic ways to increase unionization.  

1] Increase Public Sector Employment:  Part of the low level of union coverage in Ontario is the low level of public sector employment in the province.  

public sector employment: Ontario versus Canada

If Ontario had a similar level of public sector employment as the rest of Canada (10.56% of population instead of 9.41%) we would have another 160,800 public sector workers and  this would add (at the current 72.2% union density in Ontario) 116,100 more unionized public sector jobs. 

2] Increase the relatively low level of unionization of public sector workers in Ontario:  Another factor depressing unionization in Ontario is that public sector union coverage is higher in the rest of Canada than in Ontario:  public sector union density is just 72.2% in Ontario but it is 78.67% in the rest of the country excluding Ontario (and 76.3% across Canada if Ontario is included). 

Increasing public sector union density in Ontario and Canada
It's not clear why public sector union density has been consistently lower than the rest of Canada, but if Ontario did achieve 78.67% public sector union coverage, that would mean another 84,300 union employees in Ontario. Raising public sector union density to the same level as in the rest of Canada is not quite so important as improving public sector employment to levels found in the rest of the country, but it is still very significant for improving unionization levels.

Surprisingly, private sector unionization is also lower in Ontario than the rest of Canada:13.7% in Ontario compared with 17.6% in the rest of Canada (excluding Ontario).

Ontario has lower private sector union density than rest of Canada

While total private sector employee coverage in Ontario in terms of the number of employees covered is about the same in 2016 as in 1997, the rate of private sector unionization in Ontario has declined from 19.2% in 1997 to 13.7% in 2016.  If the private sector as a whole had maintained the rate of unionization it had in 1997, there would be another 250,000 unionized workers in Ontario – roughly a 20% increase in total (public and private sector) union coverage.

For Ontario, a key issue is unionization in manufacturing. There has been a very large decline in manufacturing unionization since 2006, much larger than in any other part of the private sector.

This is driven in part by a very steep decline in manufacturing employment, but, even more, it is driven by a declining percentage of manufacturing workers who are unionized: from 35% in 1997 to 20% in 2016.  

If manufacture had maintained the 34.5% unionization level that it had in 1997, there would be another 100,000 unionized workers in Ontario.   As manufacture has been the core of the labour movement in Ontario, this decline  is, of course, a very serious change negatively affecting the bargaining power of all workers -- public and private, union and non-union alike. More positively, there is clearly room to grow the labour movement in manufacturing.

More success has been achieved in the construction sector.  Unionized construction workers are now almost as numerous as unionized manufacturing workers, having almost doubled their numbers since 1997. Employment in construction has increased significantly and the unions have kept up with the growth by keeping the rate of unionization steady (unlike most other private sector industries which saw a decline in the rate of unionization since 1997).  Employment in “business, building and other services” has also grown quickly and the density of unionization in that sector has also increased—but it still remains at only 13.6%.  

The labour movement has fundamentally changed in the last twenty years.  There are still significant opportunities to grow public sector unionization, but a vital task for everyone to increase private sector unionization.  While the last twenty years have been difficult, some successes have been achieved and other opportunities exist.

Charts outlining the unionization trends in various Ontario industries are below.  The numbers (drawn from Statistics Canada CANSIM 282-0078) can be accessed by clicking here.

Unionization by industry in Ontario 1997-2016

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