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Hollywood stars walking the picket lines. Dockworkers shuttering West Coast ports. Striking grocery workers demanding a reinstatement of pandemic hero pay.

If you have seen, heard of or been affected by seemingly widespread job action, you would be forgiven for thinking we are in a “hot labour summer,” as some have termed it.

In fact, the country remains near historic lows for organized labour disputes. According to Statistics Canada, there were 120 strikes or lockouts in the first seven months of 2023, representing about 1.7-million person-days not worked. That is on pace to surpass last year – 175 incidents and 2.1 million person-days – and most other years in the past decade.

But this year’s actions are comparable to the decade before the Great Recession, and a far cry from the height of activity in the 1970s. The middle of the decade saw more than 1,000 work stoppages each year, with more than 10-million-person-days lost annually. That’s an order of magnitude more than now.

It’s all a sign of the diminished influence of unions. And that is bad for the country, as a renewed growth of organized labour across sectors could be beneficial for workers and the economy.

Unionization has dropped steadily in recent decades. In 1981, 38 per cent of Canadian employees were members of unions. It was 29 per cent in 2022. The drop is even more stark in the United States, where only 10 per cent of workers are unionized. Much of the drop can be explained by the decline of manufacturing. As those jobs disappeared, many of the positions still unionized were in the public sector, in fields such as education, health and policing.

Four decades ago, the typical union member was a male factory employee with little formal education. Now the typical union member is a highly educated female teacher.

That is turning union membership – and the enhanced job security and benefits that can come with it – into something of a class privilege.

The current mix of mostly public sector unions does little to improve the prospects of those in the private sector, which employs two-thirds of all workers. A 2020 paper by David Card, the Nobel Prize-winning Canadian-American economist, and co-authors Thomas Lemieux and W. Craig Riddell built on years of research that suggests declining unionization has driven some of the growth in income inequality.

They estimated that unions reduced wage inequality for private employees by less than 5 per cent but reduced it by about 50 per cent for public employees. And because women were more likely to be employed in the public sector, unions actually had a very small effect of increasing wage inequality for women overall, because the benefits of unionization were concentrated among the most highly skilled.

There are also serious qualitative concerns. As corporate concentration has risen and fewer companies hold wider sway on the economy, workers have had less influence. Just as in the public sphere, where voters, political parties and the judiciary can serve as checks and balances on the decisions of government, the private sector would benefit from strong forces that can counterbalance each other.

This isn’t to say every union demand is good, or every work stoppage is a just one. But it is to say our economy is better for having a strong voice for labour at the table.

The challenge for unions, then, is how to make sure the benefits of organizing are widely felt. More representation is needed in the services sector. Kim Novak, president of Local 1518 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, says high turnover has always made that difficult. But last year her local, which also represents workers at grocery stores, unionized a Sephora store in Kamloops, B.C. – a first for the beauty chain in Canada. The Sephora drive was pushed by young workers, Ms. Novak says, and she sees much more enthusiasm for unions among the younger generation.

It’s also incumbent on union leadership to hold themselves to a high standard. Recent scandals, such as those at Unifor and OPSEU, undermine not only those leaders, but the labour movement as a whole.

There was a time when it seemed pandemic pressures would lead to a broad resurgence of unions. So far, that hasn’t materialized. But with inflation, increasing automation, and workers pushing their unions for better deals, labour may have truly hot summers to come.

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