Queen's University IRC

Is There a Future for the Canadian Labour Movement?


Mary Lou Coates
Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre

September 1, 1992

The labour movement in Canada has been under tremendous pressure in recent years. Intense global competition, economic integration and restructuring, trade liberalization initiatives such as the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, rapid and pervasive technological change, the growing service economy and dramatic changes in the growth and composition of the workforce have ushered in a drastically altered economic, labour market and public policy environment within which unions operate.

There is speculation that Canadian unions will not be able to rise above these challenges, that they are becoming weaker, their future is jeopardized and they are destined to follow the same path as their counterparts in the United States, where there have been significant declines in union membership levels and density.

On the other hand, others feel confident that, despite enormous pressures, the Canadian labour movement has shown remarkable resilience and adaptiveness. Based on a broader approach embodied in its active social unionism strategy, it is felt that unions in Canada are destined to remain dynamic and will therefore continue to diverge from the fate that has befallen American unions.

This report examines the Canadian labour movement:

  • The decline in union density by sector and industry.
  • The reasons given to explain the decline — the new economic, labour market and public policy environments.
  • The new forms of work organization to respond to the changing business environment.
  • The effect of the ‘new human resource management’ on Canada’s unions.
  • The two divergent views on the future of the Canadian labour movement.

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