The first labour organizations in Canada appeared in the early 19th century, but their growth and development really occurred in the early decades of the 20th century. During most of the 19th century labour unions were local, sporadic and short-lived. Moreover they were illegal, prohibited by strict anti-combines legislation, in view of the basic principle of the freedom of commerce and competition. From l872 they were allowed to exist by the Trade Unions Act, passed that year by the federal government. But union activities, such as demonstrations and strikes, were controversial until the 20th century.
Many types of organization existed in the 19th century: by trade, by industry, by region, by ideology. Survival was long to come. Total number of union members was erratic, depending mainly on the level of economic activity. At the turn of the century, it was less than 100 000 corresponding to less than 10% of the labour force.
The major growth of labour organization came only in the 1940s as a result of the industrial development spurred by the war industries and the postwar boom, and from new legislation (1944) permitting union certification and forcing employers to accept collective bargaining with employee representatives. Thus, during the 1940s, membership in labour organizations more than doubled, from less than 400 000 to 1 million, and the level of unionization rose from 20% to 30%.
The degree of unionization reached 34% in 1954, but returned to 30% in the late 1950s. In the 1960s efforts were made to tap new sources of members, eg, office workers and some professional employees. In the late 1960s all Canadian jurisdictions (except Saskatchewan, which had done so in 1944) granted public-sector employees the right to organize and bargain collectively. The level of unionization consequently rose to 40% of Canadian nonagricultural paid workers in 1983. Since then it has declined slightly (37.6% in 1987) and now remains relatively stable around 35%.
In the last decades of the 20th century, in most industrialized countries of the world, union membership and its rate have strongly declined. In the United States it is well below 20%. There is only one important exception, Canada. Two main reasons explain this singular situation.
1. Automatic union dues checkoff from each paycheck, according to most collective agreements, sometimes by the law itself, is applied to all employees in the bargaining unit. The amount is transferred directly to the local (or other) union treasurer. Thus all members automatically remain in good standing. Since such provision is regularly transferred into the next agreement, the union in place has a kind of long survival ticket. The only stop machinery would be an explicit vote against the union asked for and obtained by the employees of the unit in question.
2. Almost all public-sector employees, federal, provincial and municipal, are already unionized and have the automatic checkoff provision in their collective agreement. The small decrease that can be observed, in private and public sector, come from special circumstances: a decrease in the labour force, the shutdown of a firm and/or an explicit rejection vote by the employees involved, which is highly improbable if not totally impossible.
The distribution of union members by province is uneven, the most highly unionized being BC and Newfoundland (around 50%), and the least, Prince Edward Island (25%). The distribution has also changed over time. Between 1962 and 1984 (2 years for which relatively comparable data are available) the degree of unionization has increased in most provinces; it has remained relatively stable, around 35%, in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba. An important advance (from 25% to 41%) has occurred in Québec, mainly because of an almost complete unionization of public-sector employees. Besides the recent case of Newfoundland, BC has always been the most unionized of all Canadian provinces, while Ontario and Nova Scotia, former strongholds of Canadian unions, are losing ground.
Union membership and unionization rates also vary greatly from industry to industry. They also change through time, reflecting basic changes in the economy, such as the extraordinary development of service industries, and changing social attitudes. During the 1980s, the number of union members in service industries increased by 66%, and the degree of unionization jumped from 25% to 40%, while both measures decreased in manufacturing and construction. In public administration, the number and degree of unionization advanced only slightly, because the main changes in that sector occurred in the late 1960s and through the 1970s.
The advance of unionism in the public sector is particularly obvious when one considers the 10 largest unions in Canada. The 3 groups with the highest number of members are (and have been for a while) public-sector unions: the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the National Union of Provincial Government Employees (NUPGE) and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). Altogether they represent 750 000 members. Only after these 3 come the most powerful unions of the private sector, the Steelworkers, the Food and Commercial Workers, and the Autoworkers. Thirty years ago, the Steelworkers and the Autoworkers were the biggest of all Canadian unions. With the decline of the labour force in many sectors, union mergers often become the unavoidable option. An important example, though by no means the only one, was the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers Union of Canada, established in 1993. One may wonder of what remains of the basic principle of North American trade unionism. Many, if not close to all, main unions today are not defined by a trade but are rather of a general nature.
Around 1900 international unions represented 90% of all union members of Canada. From 1930 to 1960, the proportion remained constant, around 70%. In 1975 it was down to 50% and in 1990 down again to 35%, so strong has been the movement towards Canadianization of unions, through several separate movements: the development of Canadian-born unions, the growth of public-sector employees in distinct Federations, and the peaceful secession of Canadian locals from several American-based international unions, like the Canadian Auto Workers formed in 1983 of previous UAW members.
Despite the frequent stance on solidarity, the labour movement has always been divided internally. With the reunification of the TLC and Canadian Congress of Labour in 1956, the Canadian Labour Congress became the mouthpiece of close to 80% of all union members. New divisions developed in the 1970s. Unaffiliated or independent unions grew in number and importance; in the early 1980s they accounted for 20% of all union members in Canada.
A major split among CLC-affiliated unions occurred in 1982 when the building trades seceded to form the Canadian Federation of Labour (CFL), resurrecting the name of an old federation that had existed from 1902 to 1927. The split resulted from the fact that for many years the CLC had sided with the industrial unions against the building trades on different questions, eg, regarding whether certain types of works should belong to the shop employees or to the construction workers. Because of fragmentation, the CLC represent between 55-60% of all union members in Canada.
At the end of the 20th century labour organizations in Canada face a number of challenges from both inside and outside their ranks. Ideological divisions still exist. Unions preoccupied with social reform have a tendency to become radical, more in the public than the private sector. Many members from private-sector unions have viewed public-sector salary increases as coming directly from the taxes they themselves have to pay. Although no split has actually occurred, serious tensions have been felt between the 2 groups, especially within the ranks of smaller central labour bodies, such as the CNTU.
Another source of controversy has been the divergent views of various labour organizations regarding co-operation with management and governments. So-called tripartism has been a source of contention among unions. Some consider such mechanisms as the only feasible and practical avenue of the future; others regard them as a downright betrayal of their members and of workers in general.
As serious as these internal divisions may be, other problems may be more menacing, eg, unsupportive government interventions, decreasing support of public opinion, tougher management and the problems raised by new technology.
In the 1970s most governments introduced extended and more sophisticated employment standards, together with more constraining health and safety measures. Some have called these new standards the "collective agreement of the unorganized". These measures may either curtail or enhance the unionization of the 65% of workers still not covered by any collective agreement. One basic question remains: do unions exist for the benefit of the labouring class as a whole or for the well-being of many already advantaged union members? The rhetoric and the practice give different answers.
A drastic type of government intervention has to do with the substance of collective bargaining, eg, wage controls (see Wage Controls) of the mid-1970s and the curtailing of bargaining rights of public-sector employees in the early 1980s and 1990s. These interventions have considerably reduced the influence of labour organizations on the Canadian economy. Their bargaining power has also been curtailed by the many instances of back-to-work legislation adopted at various times - federally and in all large Canadian provinces. These laws, according to some observers and practitioners, amount to a denial of the right to strike.
Most open conflicts in the 1990s have occurred between governments and public-sector employee unions. Since the 1980s there were very few major strikes in private-sector companies; despite the "sacrifices" asked for by the employers, most unions have conceded on important demands, like job numbers, because they feared that the company would close the plant and move it elsewhere, or contract-out most of the labour work to low-wage countries, thus losing the work. When the governments began to impose downsizing and outsourcing like private companies to curb their own deficits substantially, public-sector unions became more militant than ever before: their jobs (and union dues) were at stake. Besides, they were not afraid the (public) employer would move to another country. Such confrontation can hardly be still labelled collective bargaining. In fact, it is closer to lobbying and political confrontation.
The public support of such government intervention by many Canadians reflects the diminishing support of labour organizations among the public. Public-opinion polls reveal that the Canadian people trust management and business representatives more than labour-union spokespeople. On the other hand, employees realize that as a group perhaps the only opportunity available to them to secure better working conditions still lies in unionization and collective bargaining. It is almost trying to square the circle. When it comes to the distribution of economic results, our society as a whole is not sure what objectives to pursue.
See also Strikes and Lockouts.