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Norma Rae Redux

Unions have long been a cornerstone of the Canadian workforce. Their members have been linked to a strong middle class, a generally prosperous and stable economy, increased job security, tax support enough to sustain robust public services and healthy families.

But numbers just released by Stats Canada suggest the picture is changing, hand in hand with a workforce whose makeup has been undergoing a significant evolution of its own.

Canada’s unionization rate has fallen from 37.6 percent in 1981 — the year it was first tracked —to 28.8 percent in 2014.

And the characterization of its individual members is on the move, too.

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Today a union member is slightly more likely to be a female than a male, and to be employed in an office, school or hospital. That’s a stark departure from the more traditional profile of a union member, who was a factory worker, miner or member of another blue-collar trade.

Between 1981 and 2014, the union density for male workers declined from 41 percent to 27 percent. But it remained relatively stable for female union members over the same period, varying between 30 percent and 32 percent.

Another significant change is the drop in the number of unionized young workers, particularly males. This, says the analysis accompanying Stats Can’s release, is most likely a function of the employment shift away from those industries and occupations with high union density (such as construction and manufacturing) and toward those with lower rates (think retail and professional services).

In Canada’s private sector, unionization rates — 15.2 percent in 2014 — have been on the freefall for more than three decades. They are much higher — 71.3 percent in 2014 — in the country’s working public sector.

There are well over a hundred unions in Canada, and they fall into four categories: international, national, independent local and directly charted. On average, a union in Canada represented about 6,000 workers in 2014.

This trend of shrinking union membership is likely to continue, says the report, and the image of a “typical” Canadian union member will continue to be the subject of reinvention.

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