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Almost half of Canadians say workers’ right to strike outweighs economic hit: report

Overall, 3-in-5 Canadians believe unions have had a positive impact on the workers they represent
A new survey from the Angus Reid Institute found that for more than half of Canadians, the right to strike outweighs the risk of economic consequences. Striking employees of the grocery store Metro are seen on a picket line in Toronto, on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Almost half of Canadians say the right to strike outweighs the risk of economic consequences, a new survey from the Angus Reid Institute found.

The report on how Canadians perceive unions comes after several high-profile labour disputes have made headlines across the country this year, from a month-long strike by Toronto-area Metro workers to the B.C. port strike earlier in the summer.

“From a headlines perspective, it’s been a very intense year on the labour action front,” said Shachi Kurl, president of the not-for-profit institute.

“It felt like an important and … appropriate time to canvass Canadians on their views,” she said, as well as to ask union members about their experiences.

The survey found Canada has “competing views about the value and cost of organized work in Canada, among union members and non-members alike,” the report said.

While 47 per cent of Canadians said the right to bargain outweighs the risk of economic damage, 37 per cent said the opposite, and the rest weren’t sure.

Overall, three in five Canadians believe unions have had a positive impact on the workers they represent, the institute said.

However, respondents were more divided on unions’ impact on the Canadian economy, with 38 per cent saying it has been positive and 32 per cent saying it was negative.

Around three in five unionized workers said they’re satisfied with how they are represented by their unions. However, women were somewhat more likely than men to say they didn’t feel supported when they went to a union representative for assistance.

Across the survey, there were “big differences” between age groups and other demographic divides, said Kurl. For example, on the question about supporting the right to strike over economic consequences, older respondents, particularly older men, were more likely to prioritize protecting the economy.

“The older you get, the sentiment really does indicate that the risk of negative economic impacts of a strike is more important than the right to bargain,” which includes strike action, said Kurl.

Historically, the image of a union member often called to mind a man in a hardhat, said Kurl, but “the face of union membership is changing.” That’s why it’s important to look at how different groups of people think about or experience unions, she said.

“These data are very clearly stating that some members feel more value and feel like they get more benefit than other members,” she said.

Amidst a recent string of unionization in workplaces that haven’t historically been unionized, such as Starbucks stores, the institute asked non-unionized workers how they felt about the potential for their own workplace to organize.

Those workers were divided on whether they would support or oppose their own workplace unionizing, with young people far more likely to welcome it.

When asked how they thought public- and private-sector unions have affected the economy, Canadians in general, and unionized workers, men older than 54 were the most negative in their assessments, the institute said. In contrast, women aged 18 to 34 had the most positive responses.

It has been a busy, and at times challenging, year for unionized workers in Canada, the institute said in its report.

Unionized workers have been fighting for higher wage gains and other improvements as they seek to win back some of their lost purchasing power from breakneck inflation and rising interest rates.

They’ve been aided by a tight labour market that experts have said gives them a leg up in bargaining.

Just this week, workers at 27 Metro stores in the Greater Toronto Area ratified a new deal with the grocer that Unifor called “historic,” after striking for more than a month. The union has said it plans to use this deal in upcoming negotiations with the grocers in order to try and make similar gains.

Earlier this year, 155,000 federal employees went on strike, one of the largest strikes in Canadian history, noted the report.

Politics also played a role in respondents’ views on unions in the institute’s survey.

Conservative voters were more likely to say unions in Canada are too powerful, while NDP voters were more likely to say unions aren’t powerful enough. Liberal voters were somewhere in the middle, with half saying Canada is in the “Goldilocks zone of union power,” according to the report.

The rate of unionization in Canada steadily declined between 1981 and 2022, according to Statistics Canada, from 38 per cent to 29 per cent, which is about where it sat in July 2023 as well.

Public-sector employees have a significantly higher unionization rate than private-sector employees: around three-quarters, compared with around 15 per cent.

Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press