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An "American kind of decline" In Canadian Union Membership
Source John Bermingham
Date 07/11/29/22:12

The Province November 27, 2007

Wanted: 25,000 new members every year
Growth needed beyond traditional union territory
John Bermingham

THE BIGGEST challenge facing B.C.'s trade unions are grey and balding heads among the rank and file.

Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said the aging of B.C.'s 450,0000 unionized workers has the potential to whittle down numbers considerably over the next decade.

"It's not a crisis yet, but I think there are some serious warning signs," Sinclair told more than 900 delegates to the B.C. Fed's 51st annual convention in Vancouver yesterday.

"Who's going to be sitting here 10 years from now?"

In 1997, 37 per cent of B.C. workers were unionized. The figure now is 32 per cent, the biggest drop of any province in the country and twice the national rate of decline.

"That is an American kind of decline," said Sinclair, who said it could fall to 28 per cent within the next decade.

Union membership in the private sector, from resource industries to manufacturing, is in decline.

And Sinclair blamed the B.C. government for much of it, allowing 41 sawmills to close since 2001, and bumping up raw-log exports.

He challenged union leaders to organize and recruit 25,000 new members every year from among low-wage workers.

He said B.C. Fed polling has shown that 40 per cent of non-union workers want a union card, about 400,000 potential recruits.

"If we don't fight for those people, we are missing the future of the trade union movement," said Sinclair. "None of these people have a union, and they desperately need one."

Sinclair said trade unions need to reach out to young workers, but he said it can be a tough task.

He asked delegates to stand up if they planned to retire within the next 10 years -- and about half did so.

Then he asked how many delegates were 30 or under -- and about a dozen got up.

University of B.C. labour expert Mark Thompson says B.C. trade unions are in traditional industries such as manufacturing, transportation, railroads and the public sector.

"The problem is that the labour movement is heavily concentrated in industries which are declining in employment, if not economic significance," says Thompson.

The job growth is in industries such as retail, call centres, high-tech and services, where union organizing is difficult.

"Employers in these industries resist unions very vigorously," he says.

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