by Charles Cirtwill

I knew unions were in trouble the day the bus drove by. Now, granted, buses drive by every day. This bus, though, was special. Splashed on the side of it, like an ad for the local pizza shop or the next big concert in Moncton was a huge billboard ad. I think it said something like union members make more per hour than non-union workers. (Of course it didn’t say that the jobs were comparable, just that unionized workers earn more – but let’s not get into that.)

That bus was followed by another one. This one had a smiling nurse on it telling me that health care unions improve working conditions. Then came the carpenters union and then another on the commitment of unions to their local community. It was a veritable flood of positive messaging around unions and their good works.

Being a fan of Shakespeare (the union “doth protest too much, methinks”) I became curious. Why were the unions working so hard to convince Joe Q Public that they were good at representing their members? Well, it turns out they were not trying to convince Joe Q Public, they were trying to convince Jane Q Worker. You see, the unionized share of the workforce is in decline and they want those workers back.

According to Statistics Canada, in the last 15 years union membership has fallen from around 36 per cent to just below 30 per cent of the Canadian workforce. The vast majority of us simply have no day-to-day association with unions. In fact, the current level is only achieved by a remarkable imbalance in unionization. If you work in the public sector you are four times more likely to be unionized. In 2006 the figure was 71.4 per cent unionized in the public sector versus 17 per cent in the private.

There are basically two competing explanations as to why private sector unionization is in decline. First, the unions won. With the advent of stricter government regulation and higher labour standards the need for unions as the direct advocate for the little guy has almost been eradicated. It could be argued that if unions die these advances die too, but that seems unlikely, especially when you consider the impact of argument number two. That says the worker has won. With competition now global and innovation possible at any scale the corporations are more dependent on their workers than the workers on the corporation. This fundamental shift has brought the old model of corporate tyranny to an end.

Whether you adhere to the first or the second school of thought, or some combination of the two (as I do) the unmistakable fact is that unions are not as critical to the everyday wellbeing of the worker as they once were. Even unions have recognized this fact.

Unions have shifted from saving the worker to saving the world. A quick glance at three major union webpages – the CAW, CUPE and the NUPGE – reveal that in their various hot topics sections, issues related to collective bargaining are not the single biggest item, or the second or the third. Of four banner headlines on the CAW webpage only one is even about “Canada’s job crisis” the others deal with global feminism, an activist running for sick kids and a political action campaign called “working families” urging intervention in the Ontario provincial election. Four of the eight highlights on the CUPE page are about the Security and Prosperity Partnership and the shenanigans at Montebello. The NUPGE is similarly focused on political issues and action – medicare, child care, the environment and a global women’s movement, leaving only one link for strike alerts.

This focus on political rather than commercial collective action is a reflection of the simple reality that unions, absent political activities, don’t directly matter to most of us. But it also reflects a deeper and more dangerous truth. Political action gives public sector unions a degree of influence, even control, over their bargaining partners that was never possible for private unions. Government is far more susceptible to public pressure than private companies. Because of that, union political action can halt the introduction of competition or the pursuit of alternative service models and weaken the resolve of management to hold the line on costs.

This doesn’t mean that government should be in the business of limiting the ability of unions to engage in public discourse. It does mean that government should not be in the business of allowing unions to coerce their members into engaging in that debate by mandatory membership and the required funding of union activities not specifically related to collective bargaining.

In an environment of monopoly supply and with the presence of significant union influence on both sides of the negotiating table we have seen significant tangible benefits accrue to public employees. Benefits they are understandably not enthusiastic to surrender: job security second to none, wage premiums that in some provinces place unionized public employees over 30% higher than the average industrial wage, and continued pressure to increase both spending and employment in their areas of monopoly control.

Private unions have seen the impact of fierce and global competition: an increase in the power of the individual worker to the point where unions become unnecessary and union membership declines precipitously. The harsh reality for the public sector union monopolies of today is that we are now entering a time of transformational change that will see this same competition enter into their domain regardless of how much political action they undertake. A significant labour shortage is already hammering our private industries and it is only a matter of time before the public sector finds itself in the grips of this phenomenon. Jane Q Public Worker is going to have a lot more options, a few billboards on buses won’t cut it as a response.

Charles Cirtwill is the acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax, N.S.