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On the Job

Why Unions Matter in Alberta

Executive summary

On the Job

For decades, organized labour in Alberta (as across Canada and other Western economies) has sought to cope with the restructuring of labour markets in ways unfavourable to workers. The resulting pressure upon unions in Alberta has intensified in recent years, with threats of socalled right-to-work legislation, the deepening of regressive labour laws, reductions in public sector pensions, an impending drain on union finances (through Bill C-377), and the use of aggressive bargaining tactics by the provincial government. Further, Albertans are often audience to a chorus of conservative forces demonizing the labour movement and advocating to further circumscribe union strength.

This report examines the current state and impact of unions in Alberta. Recent trends in union membership and organizing indicate that organized labour in Alberta is in a precarious position. Especially worryingly, unionization in Alberta continues to be the lowest among Canadian provinces. Workers have a particularly difficult time becoming unionized in Alberta; applications to unionize are on the decline; and union members make up a shrinking percentage of the private sector workforce, leaving unionization in the province increasingly restricted to the public sector.

This report finds that, in spite of such challenges, unions provide substantial economic and social benefits to workers in the province. The report focuses on the influence of unions in three key areas.

1. Wages

  • When measured in terms of economic performance, wage growth in Alberta has been far lower than in any other province;
  • Union wages in Alberta are on average $4.75 per hour (18%) higher than non-union wages, with the difference being most notable for women and young workers;
  • In the construction industry, building trade union members earn benefits worth $3.92 per hour (56%) more than members of CLAC, an employer-friendly union; and
  • Evidence from the US shows unions also put upward pressure on wages for non-union members.

2. Worker Safety

  • Alberta workplaces are dangerous, with official records indicating 145 occupational fatalities and 27,745 serious workplace injuries in 2012;
  • Employers demonstrate widespread non-compliance with provincial occupational health and safety regulations, due in part to ineffective enforcement by the provincial government; and
  • Unions are the central force protecting worker safety, doing so through worker education, worker empowerment, and government lobbying.

3. Income Equality

  • The gap between the rich and the poor has increased dramatically in Alberta and is now the highest in Canada;
  • Income gains over the last three decades have gone almost exclusively to the wealthiest Albertans;
  • Rising income inequality is closely related to falling unionization rates in the province; and
  • Unions are critical to achieving a more equitable distribution of income.

Any future attempts to further restrict collective bargaining in Alberta need to be assessed against these demonstrated economic and social benefits that unions deliver to workers. Albertans wanting higher wages, safer workplaces, and a more equitable distribution of income should consider the extent to which their goals align with the objectives of the labour movement

ISBN: 978-1-894949-45-3

Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue under a Creative Commons licence.

Bob Barnetson

Dr. Bob Barnetson is a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University. His research focuses on the political economy of workplace injury, farm workers, and child labour in Alberta. He’s the author of The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada (Athabasca University Press, 2010), co-editor of Farm Workers in Western Canada: Injustices and Activism (University of Alberta Press, 2016), co-author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (Athabasca University Press, 2016), and author of Canada’s Labour Market Training System (Athabasca University Press, 2018).

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Angella MacEwen

Angella MacEwen is a labour economist with the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Her primary focus is understanding the impacts of Canadian economic and social policy on workers, especially climate policy and international trade and investment treaties. Before taking her current role at CUPE, she represented the Canadian Labour Congress at parliamentary committees and in the national media. Angella holds a MA in Economics and a BA in International Development Studies.

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David Campanella

David Campanella is the former Public Policy Research Manager for Parkland Institute. Now based in Ontario, David holds a Master’s degree from York University (MES), where he focused on political economy, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo (BES, Economics Minor).

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