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How the labour movement has failed minorities in Canada

How the labour movement has failed
Rachel Decoste, Huffington Post Canada September 2, 2014

Kudos to Rachel for her thoughtful and informative critique of the Canadian labour movement’s historical under-representation of racial minorities. It’s actually more cleverly written than it first appears (and it’s pretty clever as-is); the embedded web links make some interesting implicit connections.

The Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and General Workers (CBRT&GW) link directs to a Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) page commemorating its 100th anniversary. It notes:

When the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) was formed in 1956, Mosher (founder of CBRT&GW, which spurned the predominantly black porters) was named honorary president.

The interesting coincidence is that both the CLC this year and CAW (newly merged under Unifor) last year elected their first minority presidents. If only it were that easy to glance over glaring historical under-representation within their respective ranks, which continues to this day.

Action plans…

Another interesting link was to CLC ‘action plans’, which eventually leads to info on its recent ‘anti-racism’ history.

Apparently in 1996 CLC convened an ‘anti-racism task force’ which would go on to publish Report of the CLC National Anti-Racism Task Force, October 1997. Looking at the progress made on just three of the dozens of recommendations is telling:

Internal union democracy, recommendation 6.
Affiliates conduct surveys of their membership to determine the representation of Aboriginal Peoples and People of Colour. At every CLC convention, there will be a report on representation which includes the affiliate survey results and information on union initiatives to fight workplace and union racial harassment and discrimination.

Research, recommendation 1.
In partnership with progressive policy institutes, the CLC and its affiliates fund a one year project to begin the important work of integrating anti-racism analysis into public policy work, with the goal of establishing a national anti-racism research centre.

Research, recommendation 5.
The CLC, its affiliates and federations of labour hire aboriginal workers and workers of colour to work in their research and policy departments.


More than a decade after publishing its anti-racism report, the CLC decided to follow up on its 1997 minority representation survey ‘action plan’ – by surveying 52 affiliates between November 2010 and March 2011. Despite plenty of time to respond, only 15 CLC affiliates bothered doing so; just 13 indicated having taken any action on the recommendation made 14 years earlier.

Regarding the recommended membership survey to determine minority representation, only 7 affiliates bothered responding to the question; just 2 indicated maintaining statistics on racial minority representation, although all 7 did so for female representation (Advancing Equity by the Numbers and Reporting on Past Promises, Stratcom on behalf of CLC 2011).

Simply put, it seems Canadian unions don’t report on racial minority representation because practically none of them (just 3.8% of CLC affiliates) even bother trying to measure it.

About that National Anti-racism Research Centre ‘action plan’ –seriously, NARC as the acronym for an anti-racism initiative? Anyhow, according to, there was a National Anti-Racism Council of Canada ( web site registered between 2004 and 2014. According to, the NARCC site was last active on August 13, 2013. Canadian Labour’s racism concerns presumably ended two weeks later when Unifor, the merged CAW and CEP union, elected its first racial minority president.

Which is a decent segue to the final referenced ‘action plan’ – hiring racial minority research staff to bolster Canadian Labour’s woefully lacking research. In addition to the recent Unifor and CLC presidents’ appointments, the CLC also recently elected a racial minority VP. Effectively, half its elected executive is vismin.

CLC does not provide a staffing directory for its national office. Of the seven national office staff listed on its contacts page, one, listed as Acting Director Anti-Racism and Human Rights, is vismin. Unfortunately, his principle research interest is AIDS in Africa – important, but not terribly relevant to labour market challenges faced by racial minorities in Canada (unless one harbours some troubling racial stereotypes).

The referenced write-up by Rachel addresses the lack of diversity among the ‘progressive’, labour-affiliated think tanks as well. In short, there isn’t any.

Oh well, at least the ‘Union Advantage’ extends to young workers and women, right?

‘Union Advantage’ in perspective

Canadian Labour’s disinterest in stats on immigrants and racial minorities aside, its ab(use) of hourly wage differential is an over-simplistic and not terribly informative indicator of ‘Union Advantage’ in general.

Before earning anything, one first needs to be employed, and that employment needs to offer either sufficient paid hours or regular salary. There’s also the matter of non-wage benefits, which aren’t covered by the Labour Force Survey (LFS), and haven’t been well covered in any survey since Statstics Canada cancelled its Workplace and Employee Survey (WES) in 2006.

Youth employment

Analysis of young workers’ outcomes using the LFS is problematic, for a number of reasons. Youth responses are more likely to be proxied (someone else answering on their behalf), and their relative transience / mobility (more likely to rent, not be the primary respondent, rely exclusively on a mobile phone, etc) makes it difficult to capture and keep them in the sample.

Despite these issues, several trends captured by the LFS data cast doubt on the ‘Union Advantage’ for youth: In the long shadow of the Great Recession, their labour market participation has fallen, their unemployment rate has risen and their employment has become even more precarious – in no small part thanks to unions.

While the union coverage rate for young workers (age 15-24) in traditionally better-paying manufacturing sector jobs has dropped significantly, from about 26% in 2002 to 20% in 2013, that belies an even greater drop in their share of manufacturing employment over the same period, from about 250,000 in 2002 to just 130,000 in 2013.

For perspective, the union coverage rate for older manufacturing workers (age 55-64) dropped less, from 36% in 2002 to 32% in 2013, while their share of Manufacturing employment rose dramatically, from about 205,000 in 2002 to 275,000 in 2013. The manufacturing picture is complicated by demographics (baby boomers), how unions work (seniority first) and globalisation (concessions to employers).

The picture doesn’t look much better for youth in low-wage, precarious retail and wholesale trade, where they account for nearly a third of the industry’s labour force. Both the union coverage rate and total employment for young workers in the industry changed little since 2002.

While the union coverage rate for older retail and wholesale trade workers also saw little change, their share of employment doubled, from about 150,000 in 2002 to 310,000 in 2013.

As if it wasn’t bad enough they’d been increasingly relegated to low-wage precarious retail jobs, young workers increasingly found themselves squeezed out of those less desirable jobs by older workers. Here again, the picture is complicated by demographics, increasing income inequality / financial precarity among older workers and woefully inadequate social security programs.

Bottom line, it’s tough to argue there’s been a great ‘Union Advantage’ for young workers when they’ve been squeezed out of good union shop jobs where they were already under-represented, and increasingly squeezed out of less desirable jobs with little historical (or prospective) union representation.

Women in the labour force

The ‘Union Advantage’ for women can best be summed up as addition by subtraction.

According to the LFS, women outnumber men by a nearly 2-1 margin in the public sector, 2.3:1.3 million in 2013, up slightly from 1.8:1.1 million in 2002. The union coverage rate in the public sector has been consistently high over the years, at around 75%.

On the other hand, men slightly outnumber women in the private sector, 6.2:5.2 million in 2013, around the same 5.5:4.5 million ratio in 2002. The union coverage rate in the private sector has declined, from about 20% in 2002 to 17% in 2013.

If unions have helped close the earnings gap for women, part of that ‘success’ was achieved through concurrent poorer bargaining outcomes in the private sector and decreasing relative public sector employment representation of men.

Not that those phantom gains have accrued to all women evenly. For example, highly skilled racial minority women seeking well-paying professional health care employment aren’t faring so well (Ontario, Quebec), despite acute shortages in the highly unionised sector.

Whether they’re immigrant doctors and dentists denied medical internships, nurses receiving insufficient (if any) shifts/hours or pharmacists denied employment, racial minority, (mostly) immigrant women with highly desirable skills and qualifications aren’t as sold on the ‘Union Advantage’. While they’re not under 25, these women do tend to be younger (than 55), although much of the preceding is anecdotal as there are no Canadian surveys that reliably cover immigration, race/ethnicity, employment and union status by sector.

So who does the ‘Union Advantage’ accrue to? Well, by process of elimination, older white workers, the balance shifting slightly to older white women in recent years. Given the seismic demographic shift under way, Canadian Labour may soon come to regret its disregard of young, racialised, immigrant Canadians, an increasingly cynical and savvy group more than capable of seeing through insincere overtures.

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