Labour historian Mark Leier had 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 recalled 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 recited 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 less than 30 per cent of the workforce - about 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 plummeted 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 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 unionfought gains are part of the economic fabric - such as working hours, humanrights 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," Leier said.
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.
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 nonunionized, low-wage service-industry jobs, but it highlights structural changes in an economy where good-paying industrial jobs have been disappearing in favour of highskill, high-wage sectors and low-wage ghettos.