OTTAWA - Labour historian Mark Leier has an interesting perspective this Labour Day weekend on anti-union rhetoric and the prospect of a post-unionized Canadian economy.

The labour-friendly academic at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University recalls combing the archives of the Globe and Mail as he researched attitudes toward organized labour.

"'Unions were useful in the past, but they're not useful now,'" Leier recites from memory.

"I found editorials from 1900 saying that!"

Figures from Statistics Canada suggest the labour movement in Canada is in a 30-year decline. And while numbers have stabilized in recent years, organized labour is surviving but not thriving — and anchored disproportionately in the public sector.

Just under 30 per cent of the workforce — some 4.3 million employees — was unionized in 2011, a slight increase both in percentage and absolute numbers over 2010.

But the public sector, including civil servants, Crown corporations, schools and hospitals, dominated. More than 71 per cent of the public sphere was unionized, while in the private sector that number plummets to 16 per cent.

Karla Thorpe, who handles industrial relations research for the Conference Board of Canada, says the national workforce unionization rate masks a distinct trend.

"We have been seeing a decline in unionization within the private sector, but that's been offset by the level of unionization in the public sector — and growing employment in the public sector," Thorpe said in an interview.

However with governments at all levels in Canada currently reining in deficits, Thorpe says public-sector unions aren't likely to keep growing. She anticipates declining unionization rates overall in coming years.

Moreover, private-sector growth is occurring in areas that traditionally have not been heavily organized, such as the service sector. Smaller employers scattered at locations across the country are far more difficult to organize than large industries employing thousands of people in a single plant.

Thorpe even hints at a post-union environment.

"We have seen in the feminist movement and in the union movement that some of those big battles have been won," she said.

"Where there were concerns generations ago about health and safety in the workplace, a lot of those elements are now embedded in regulations that govern employers and apply to all workplaces, whether unionized or not."

Pro-labour advocates say that while some union-fought gains are part of the economic fabric — such as working hours, human rights protections, health and safety — others are unravelling.

"While we may not have dark satanic mills like we think of in the 19th century, in fact workers' conditions have been essentially on the decline for quite some time," said Leier.

Working wages, in particular, have barely kept pace with inflation.

The Canadian Labour Congress has compiled numbers it says show a "union advantage" that amounts to a lifetime earnings gain of more than $500,000 for unionized versus non-unionized workers.

"I think that in itself is a compelling enough story, never mind the rest of the benefits that come with unionization like an adequate pension on retirement, and a proper medical and dental plan," CLC president Ken Georgetti said in an interview.

Thorpe has another take.

She acknowledges the challenges in comparing salary groups, but says Conference Board tracking of collective agreements shows "they've barely kept up with the pace of inflation."

"We've actually seen that unionized workers' salaries over the last number of years have sort of lagged non-unionized workers."

It's a contentious point, given the growth of non-unionized, low-wage service industry jobs, but it highlights structural changes in an economy where good-paying industrial jobs have been disappearing in favour of high-skill, high-wage sectors and low-wage ghettos.

Georgetti chooses to see the restructuring of the economy as an opportunity for a renewal of organized labour.

"There's always going to be a lag between the creation of new jobs and new economies and the rate of unionization."

Georgetti says people who have to organize their own workplace have a higher degree of appreciation for a union's value.

"Today's union members largely were hired into their unionized jobs. Most of them didn't have to struggle to unionize."

He said current union members have to be constantly reminded of the benefits "because the airwaves are filled with negative media about unions, about union bosses and the effect of unionization."

Georgetti points to a recent Canadian Taxpayers Federation release that highlighted federal public-service pensions and contrasted them with most workers' lack of pension provisions. The gist of the advocacy group was that public-service pensions should be scaled back.

"That's not a very smart argument, frankly," said the labour leader. "They're trying to turn the advantage into resentment."

And resentment of unions is a reality.

Public Response, a pro-labour, left-of-centre public relations firm in Ottawa, conducted an online survey last month that found a significant majority, 61 per cent, believe unions do "a good job of protecting their members' jobs."

But opinion among the 2,099 respondents was far more divided on whether "gains made by unions for their members also improve the lives of other Canadians."

Some 46 per cent agreed and 42 per cent disagreed. Significantly, 21 per cent strongly disagreed, outstripping the 15 per cent who felt strongly that unions benefit society generally.

The poll results speak to a narrative that unions are self-interested and that gains for organized labour are a detriment to the economy as a whole.

"It's an argument that's been given voice by a lot of powerful organizations and I think people are starting to believe it," said Morna Ballantyne, labour analyst for Public Response.

Ballantyne says unions gained clout by demonstrating they were the champions of both unionized and non-unionized labour, leveraging gains that benefited all workers.

"We have some lessons to learn from history," she said, pointing approvingly to current efforts by major unions such as the CLC that advocate for improvements to the Canada Pension Plan.

But in a year that opened with Rio Tinto Alcan locking out 800 workers in Alma, Que.; Caterpillar locking out workers in London, Ont., before closing shop; federal interventions in Air Canada and CP Rail labour disputes; and Ontario's provincial government cracking down on teachers' unions, organized labour is having a rough go.

"It's difficult to know whether or not what we've seen so far this year is a sign of the times and maybe a more fundamental shift in union-management relations," said Thorpe of the Conference Board.

But she predicts a tough road ahead as governments put the squeeze on public-sector unions and the private sector continues to prove barren ground.

Leier, the historian, cautions against premature burials for the union movement. But he also warns of what he believes is a labour leadership that's "gotten respectable."

"If you're not militant, you're going to get pummelled," said Leier, with a historian's eye for turning points in labour relations and law.

"A labour movement that's not fighting may as well pack up and go home. You don't need to join a union to get a lousy contract and no pension. You can do that anywhere."

It's a slippery argument, because it can just as easily be used to fuel workers' anger at paying hundreds of dollars in annual union dues for negligible contract gains.

Ballantyne suggests that all the dark signals of organized labour at low ebb ultimately point to the labour movement's silver lining.

She argues that poor wages, high unemployment, non-existent pensions and negligible job security for younger Canadians — by far the least unionized segment of society — make a ripe demographic for renewal.

Says Ballantine: "We're now experiencing all the conditions that gave rise to unions being a powerful voice."

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