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Labour Unions and the NDP's Electoral Struggle
Plurality of Canadians say the NDP best represents Unions, yet the party can't seem to find its footing with what should be its core base
New polling suggests that Canadians are split on the impact that unions have on our society. There is also a clear divide in opinion between unionized Canadians and non-unionized Canadians. And while the NDP gets the nod as the party to best represent the interests of Union workers, it struggles to translate this support into votes.
Rates of Unionization
Rates of unionization in Canada have always been shifting. The highest peak occurred around the start of the 1980’s when just under 40% of Canadians, both private and public, worked in a unionized workplace. Since then, the rate of Canadians working in union jobs has declined to just under 30%.
The most notable dip has occurred among the youngest cohorts. Nearly 26% of 17-24 year-olds used to be unionized in 1981 and now that has dropped to 15%. Similarly, 40% of 25-34 year-olds were unionized in 1981 and that number is now down to 27%.
Older Canadians between 35-64 have all seen their rates of unionization remain above the national average.
There’s something to be said for low-unionization rates among young workers and the cost of living and affordability issues that young people in particular are facing. Yet, these low rates may be the source of increased unionization efforts south of the border, as our American neighbours have similar union stats as we do.
The difference of opinion between union workers and non-union workers is nothing short of astonishing.
When asked if they think unions have a positive or negative impact on the Canadian economy, 55% of unionized workers said they have a positive impact while only 31% of non-union workers said it was positive.
Similarly, 56% of union workers believe that unions have a positive impact on Canadians overall while only 37% of non-union workers shared the same sentiment. While there’s still a gap between the two, a majority of non-union workers agree that workers in unions are positively impacted by virtue of being unionized (53%) while 73% of unionized workers agree.
The difference between union workers and non-union workers continues even on fundamental labour topics.
The Angus Reid Institute survey asked whether the right to bargain outweighs any economic damage to the economy and vice-versa. Among Canadians, 47% agree the right to bargain for better working conditions is more important than whatever economic damage may occur while 37% disagreed with that.
On this particular question, non-union workers are eerily in line with Canadians overall. Unionized workers on the other hand overwhelmingly agree that the right to bargain for better working conditions outweighs any damage to the economy that may occur as a result.
Representation and Voting Intentions
When asked who would best represent the interests of labour unions, a clear plurality of Canadians (46%) believe the New Democratic Party best represents the interests of labour unions — 26 points ahead of the Conservatives, and 30 points ahead of the Liberals.
This should come as no surprise. The NDP was born out of the labour movement of the 1950’s and 60’s and their internal party structure benefits those labour unions who associate themselves with the party (Unions are afforded a healthy dose of voting power within party conventions and convention seats are set aside specifically for labour union representatives).
Among every partisan bloc and worker-type the NDP dominates with the exception of Conservative voters who think their party would best represent labour unions.
Interestingly, results between non-union and union workers are nearly identical. Yet, despite union voters thinking the NDP would best represent their union’s interests, this doesn’t translate into support for the party.
The caveat to these numbers is that they are taken from surveys done earlier this year. The question of vote intention by union membership is an exceedingly rare question, at least in terms of what is released publicly.
Nonetheless, the NDP finds itself struggling to win over its supposed core-base of voters in each of these surveys. Only among public-sector union workers in EKOS’ survey do they retain plurality support. But among private-sector union workers and public-sector workers in Abacus’ survey, the NDP lags behind either the Liberals, Conservatives, or both.
This ties into the greater picture of the NDP’s identity crisis which I wrote about here.
The Future of Labour in Canada
Canadians have found themselves embroiled in various economic crises since the pandemic started. From stagnating wages to soaring housing costs and all the inflation-ridden price hikes that are sprinkled in between, Canadians have been squeezed further and further as the months drag on.
There is a reason why American workers have been charging ahead with a multitude of unionization efforts, especially in retail and service-related sectors. They have seemingly had enough of low wages, poor working conditions, and the like.
While we in Canada don’t struggle with the inequality in wages to the same extent that Americans do, our workers are still being stretched beyond their limits and their means. If housing prices and the cost of food won’t come down, then Canadians are going to start demanding more from their employers, and they would be right to do so.
Only time will tell if the economic situation for individual Canadians continues to get worse. But if it does and wages don’t keep up, unions may find themselves in a ripe environment to re-establish their former golden age among workers.
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