Unions That Thrived in '80s Are Challenged

THE labor movements in Canada and the United States have gone from uniformity to divergence in the past 20 years with sharply differing results.

Long mirror images of one another when it came to organizing, political, and social strategies, a split began in the 1970s that accelerated in the 1980s, says Queens University labor specialist Pradeep Kumar, author of a new book contrasting US and Canadian unionism.

While US unions clawed unsuccessfully at the collective bargaining table to prevent wage concessions, little effort was made to expand unionism's boundaries to develop grass-roots political alliances.

"Canadian unions embraced a social-unionism orientation that emphasizes working-class issues, women, the unemployed, and social and economic policies," Mr. Kumar says. "It brought Canadian unionism a higher profile in society that is reflected in membership gains."

By the mid-1980s, union members represented about 38 percent of the Canadian work force. Under pressure from recession and free-trade restructuring, that number has slipped nearer 36 percent, though union membership in Canada grew from 3.6 million members in the mid-'80s to more than 4 million members in 1991, Kumar says.

By contrast, US union membership fell from about 22 percent of the work force to about 16 percent, Kumar says. The number of union members fell from 21 million to about 16 million.

Canadian unionists, some analysts say, became a bit smug over their successful refusal to give wage concessions during the 1981-82 recession, a battle many US unions lost.

In the early '90s, however, the tables began to turn. Industries whose export sales had been cushioned by a weak Canadian dollar that made Canadian goods cheap abroad were hurt as the dollar rose against other currencies. At the same time, the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement kicked in and tariff barriers began to fall. US multinationals now felt free to consolidate operations, often closing Canadian branch plants and increasing production in the US.

Now Canadian unions are giving wage and work-rule concessions while fighting two free-trade agreements they say have cost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs and will cost more. But Canadian unions have political allies in the New Democratic Party and in social-action groups to help them wield free-trade as a weapon in this election year, Kumar says.

The decline in US unionism, he says, has come not only because of lost membership in the private sector, but also because of US unions' inability to add to membership by new organizing. Even though the US work force is 10 times larger than Canada's, only 1.7 million US workers were organized between 1977 and 1989 compared to 1 million workers organized in Canada, he says.

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