In Brief: AIMS’ recent Commentary on trade unions by incoming president Charles Cirtwill is used by The Economist magazine for this story about the future of the union movement.

As striking workers assembled for a protest march in front of DriveTest, a privatized government agency that conducts driving tests for Ontario, Marie Derane, a strike leader, grabbed a megaphone to say that the march would not start until all the journalists present had finished their interviews.

Too few people were paying attention to the strike by 550 members of the United Steelworkers that began on Aug. 21, she explained later. And not all of those who did were supportive. “They tell me: ‘This is a recession, get back to work.’ “

These are hard times for Canada’s trade unions.

When car plants and factories close, union jobs go. The public has turned hostile, even in traditional blue-collar towns.

When municipal workers in Toronto and Windsor went on strike this summer, leaving trash piled up in the streets and head-high weeds in parks, residents had little sympathy. Some have lost their own jobs, or their savings.

The union’s image was further harmed when a striker in Windsor was caught on video dumping trash and berating a family picking up litter in a park.

In an opinion poll taken in Toronto during the strike by the Strategic Counsel, a survey firm, only 13 per cent of respondents supported it.

Conservative pundits are proclaiming the death of unions. In fact, some 30 per cent of Canadian workers were union members in 2008. That is down from 38 per cent in 1981, but still higher than in many other rich countries.

But the overall membership conceals a discrepancy: Whereas 71 per cent of public-sector workers are unionized, only 16 per cent of those in the private sector are. That is partly because in Canada — as in the United States, but unlike in Europe — unions negotiate by workplace rather than across an industry. So government and big manufacturing plants are attractive to union organizers; banks, retailers and service industries, with branches scattered across the country, are not.

Union supporters hope that the stagnation of average wages will eventually produce public pressure to change the law so as to make organizing easier. Conservatives think that market forces will make that unnecessary. If the work force shrinks as baby boomers retire, individual workers will be in a stronger position to secure wage increases, argues Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a think tank based in Halifax.

To survive, unions need to sell themselves more actively, says Elaine Bernard, a labour specialist at Harvard University. They should be reminding people of the benefits they bring, such as a stable work force in communities with high unemployment, or the broader standards they have set that all workers enjoy, such as paid holidays and a five-day week.

“People are asking, and not just in Canada, what do unions do? The answer has to be something that appeals to the individual worker, provides some service to the employer, and promotes a collective or community good,” Bernard says.

That message was hard to find on the picket line at DriveTest this week. Not surprisingly, the strikers were preoccupied with regaining their jobs and keeping their system of seniority.

That is unlikely to win the broader public support that the unions need.