Canadians Expect More from Their Unions
Canadians Expect More from Their Unions

Canadians Expect More from Their Unions

March 1 st 1999

In the spring of 1999, the Work Research Foundation commissioned a national survey to update Canadian attitudes towards labour unions. The survey attempted to look at trends concerning the views that people have toward unions generally, as well as their attitudes toward (a) membership requirements, (b) workplace practices, (c) the use of dues for nonunion activities, and (d) the posture that unions and employers should have toward each other.

Besides examining trends in these areas, the survey explored two additional areas: what Canadians think unions should be emphasizing, and whether workers will be best served through many smaller unions or fewer larger ones.

To ensure an objective and credible reading of public opinion, the Foundation again asked respected sociologist and social trends analyst, Dr. Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge, to oversee the project. Arrangements were made with Gallup Canada to carry out the data collection as part of its April national omnibus survey.

A number of pertinent items from the 1997 WRF survey that had been used in earlier Gallup polls were again included in order to permit the monitoring of attitudes over time. A total of 12 questions were asked, along with a key additional question inquiring about the respondent's current and previous union involvement.

The Gallup organization collected the data by telephone between April 12 and April 18, 1999, using a representative sample of 1,005 adults. A sample of this size permits highly accurate generalizations to the Canadian adult population—about three percentage points, plus or minus, 19 times in 20.

The following are some of the key highlights of the survey's findings.

  • Fifty-eight per cent approve of unions; 38 per cent disapprove. These figures have changed little since 1970.

  • Forty-two per cent indicated workers should have to join the union of the majority.

  • Only 23 per cent feel that unions should be able to restrict bidding on jobs.

  • Eighty per cent believe that nonunion activity use of dues should be voluntary.

  • Seventy-five per cent are opposed to union involvement in politics.

  • The top three reasons given for wanting to join a union were: 1) helping to improve pay and working conditions, 2) providing support for a problem at work, and 3) increasing training opportunities.

  • Sixty-two per cent say workers would be better served by fewer unions.

  • Sixty-four per cent do not believe confrontation is still necessary.

What the survey tells us

The finding that only about 60 per cent of the population approve of unions suggests that if unions have something to bring to Canadians they need to do a much better job of conveying what that is. The urgency of such communication and performance is magnified by the survey finding that even the 60 per cent approval level is deceiving. The good news for unions is that the figure is being bolstered by 80 per cent of current members who seemingly are experiencing benefits from being union members. The bad news is that the figure does not include around 40 per cent of those Canadians who used to be union members, as well as almost 50 per cent of those individuals who have never been members.

Some 4 in 10 people need to be convinced that unions are worthwhile—including many who have been members and have come away unimpressed. It is clear that much of the disenchantment with unions is due to public opposition to some longstanding policies and practices that simply no longer have widespread support, such as mandatory union membership, mandatory dues for nonunion activities, and the restricting of bidding to companies associated with unions.

A solid majority of Canadians also feel that unions should not be involved in supporting or opposing political parties and candidates. People who are opposed to such policies and practices are far more inclined than others to disapprove of unions (see accompanying table).

The findings indicate, however, that significant numbers of Canadians are not closed to involvement in unions, providing such involvement translates into tangible personal benefits. Foremost among those tangibles are unions helping to improve pay and working conditions, as well as providing support for problems at work; training opportunities are also valued. Such desirable outcomes are seen by a majority as best realized through the presence of fewer unions focusing on specific sectors of the economy, rather than numerous smaller unions.

And, finally, most Canadians are voting in favour of labour-employer relations that are nonconfrontational in nature. They think that cooperation is both desirable and possible.

The level of public support that labour unions will know in Canada in the new century will depend largely on the extent to which they are able to demonstrate the themes of freedom, flexibility, and functionality so pervasive in the culture—and expected of unions as well.

Ed Pypker
Ed Pypker

Ed Pypker is a former editor of Comment. He currently serves as Director of HR at ATS (Automation Tooling Systems), and as chair of the board of the Paideia Centre for Public Theology.


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