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Why union survival isn’t just about the money

Disgruntled Air Canada workers hold a rally at Pearson Airport in Toronto in this 2011 file photo. A new report says unions must change to remain relevant to young people and reverse diminishing membership.


Union coverage has dwindled in Canada over the past two decades and the wage benefits of belonging to a union diminished -- but unionized workers still tend to earn a good deal more than ones who aren't.

People who are covered by a collective agreement earn higher wages than employees who aren't, a Conference Board of Canada report out Thursday says. It finds that unionized workers still make almost 8 per cent, on average, more than people who don't belong to a union (after adjusting for factors like occupation and education).

But if unions are to survive, and halt the steady decline of membership, they will have to adapt to changing economic conditions -- and ensure they're still relevant, particularly for young people.

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"While unions may be down, don't count them out quite yet," noted Karla Thorpe, director of leadership and human resources research at the Conference Board of Canada. That said, "unions will need to be creative in growing their membership base to secure their social and political power but also their financial future."

The average hourly wage for unionized workers was $27.36 last year compared to $22.25 for non-unionized employees. And while the union wage premium has ebbed in the past few decades, "a clear benefit still flows to unionized workers."

Fewer people are part of a union, a shift also under way in the United States. In Canada, union coverage has fallen to 31 per cent from almost 34 per cent in 1997. In the U.S. -- where several states adopted right-to-work legislation -- union membership fell to a record low of 11.3 per cent of salaried workers last year from 11.8 per cent the year before, the Bureau of Labour Statistics said last month.

The key way to expand membership in Canada will be through organizing in industries "that have traditionally remained elusive" -- such as in agriculture, finance, natural resources and the services sector, Ms. Thorpe said.

Major change is afoot in Canada's labour movement. Last year, the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada voted to merge, forming the country's largest private-sector union. The new union will represent more than 300,000 workers across 22 sectors.

"The new conglomerate will not only have more clout thanks to its larger size, but will be better able to focus its resources to support organizing efforts," the analysis said. Its goal to expand membership -- to include students, retirees and the jobless -- shows "commitment to move beyond the limits of the traditional union model."

Bargaining will only get trickier amid heated global competition, restrained government spending and slow economic growth. "Unions know they need to adapt to the new realities of the Canadian landscape—the economy will grow only slowly over the medium term, technological change will continue at a rapid pace and international competition will intensify," Ms. Thorpe said.

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