Support for Unions Up, Study Finds

January 23, 2002

Richard Mackie of the Globe and Mail covers WRF union survey:

A major study of attitudes toward unions has good news for Canada's beleaguered labour movement: It says approval of unions has surged in the past couple of years.

But it cautions that those who support them want unions to turn away from the confrontational approach to labour-management negotiations.

The study, conducted for the Work Research Foundation, is to be released today. It says 64 per cent of Canadians interviewed approve of unions, the highest level of support in 40 years.

That level is up from 54 per cent in 1970 and from 57 per cent in 1997. In 1961, 66 per cent said they approved of unions.

Sixty-two per cent said that unions should be able to compete with each other to represent groups of workers, according to the study, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail. Competition was seen as a way to improve representation.

Both union members and non-union-members rejected the inevitability of confrontation in labour-management relations.

Over all, 7 per cent of those questioned said confrontation is necessary; 52 per cent said it is sometimes necessary; 25 per cent said it is rarely necessary, and 16 per cent said it is never necessary.

"The modest jump in the approval level of unions appears in part to reflect the aging of the population," the study said.

"Younger adults ... were more approving than older adults who they are beginning to replace.

"Although union members are much more likely than others to approve of unions, approval is hardly restricted to members," the study found.

Ray Pennings, chairman of the Centre for Industrial Relations Innovation at the Work Research Foundation, said approval for the concept of unions contrasts with a decline in union membership.

Across Canada, 30.4 per cent of workers belong to a union, down from 35.7 per cent in 1992.

He said the study has a message for "right-wing political ideologues, that collective bargaining can be a positive and productive economic activity."

At the same time, the study tells "left-wing ideologues that the adversarial, collectivistic, monopolistic unionism of the past isn't working.

In fact, it is counterproductive and costing unions membership," Mr. Pennings said.

This was the third study of attitudes toward unions conducted by the Work Research Foundation, an organization established to study issues surrounding the organization of work, the movement of trade, and leadership in the economic sphere.

The polling was conducted by Environics Research Group Ltd., which questioned a representative sample of 2,030 Canadians from Dec. 17 to Jan. 6.

A sample of this size has a 95-per-cent statistical probability of obtaining results, on any given question, like those that would be obtained if all adult Canadians were questioned, within a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points, upwards or downwards.

The data were analyzed by Reginald Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge.