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Economy, Labor

Winnipeg General Strike, Canadian Labour Congress, Public Service Alliance of Canada, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Congress of Industrial Organizations

The Canadian civilian labor force numbered 15.7 million in 1999. The participation rate of men in the labor force reached a postwar high in 1981 of 78.7 percent and declined to 72.5 percent by 1995. The participation rate of women, on the other hand, rose steadily to 58.7 percent in 1990 and has remained at just under that figure since. In part, the shift toward a more gender-balanced labor force is the outcome of the women’s movement, but it is also a reflection of wider economic change, especially the growth of the services sector. The vast majority of workers in goods-producing industries continue to be men, while women outnumber men in finance, business, and community and personal services; the numbers of men and women in trade and public administration are roughly equal. In general, women work fewer hours than men (women hold 70 percent of all part-time jobs) and are paid less; in 1994 men in full-time, full-year employment earned C$40,700 on average, while women earned C$28,400. However, equal-pay legislation has begun to narrow the gap in wage rates.

In 1999 the Canadian government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), one of Canada’s largest unions, reached a pay-equity settlement to end a 16-year dispute. The settlement was one of the largest in North American history. In the dispute, the PSAC accused the federal government of discriminating against women by paying lower salaries for female-dominated jobs, including secretaries and librarians, than for male-dominated jobs of “equal value,” involving comparable education, demands, and responsibility. The federal government agreed to distribute about $C 3.6 billion in back pay among some 230,000 past and present public service workers, primarily women.

The number of self-employed Canadians has risen substantially in recent decades, from 7 percent of the labor force in the 1970s to more than 13 percent in 1994. Many choose self-employment as a way to achieve greater independence; for some, however, it is a last resort when opportunities for regular employment are scarce.

Jurisdiction over labor matters is split between the federal and provincial governments, and legislation therefore varies across the country. Minimum standards are established by the Canada Labour Code, but provinces enact further rules. Canada also has federal and provincial laws that prohibit child employment, provide for maternity leave, guarantee the right to collective bargaining, require paid holidays, and require equal pay for men and women.

Labor unions have existed in Canada since at least 1827. There have been several periods when labor problems were acute, notably a period after World War I (1914-1918) that culminated in more than 300 strikes during 1919. The most famous of these, the Winnipeg General Strike, brought that city to a halt for six weeks and ended in bloodshed as the police fired live ammunition into a crowd of demonstrators.

Until recently, union membership in Canada had been highest in goods-producing industries; this has changed with the growth of the services sector. In 1992, 35 percent of all paid workers were members of unions, about twice the rate of the United States. This rate was lowest in agriculture (less than 2 percent) and highest in public administration (79 percent). The largest unions are the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the National Union of Public and General Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Public Service Alliance of Canada. There is also a central coordinating body, the Canadian Labour Congress, that represents most unions at the national level. Many Canadian unions are linked to larger international groups, especially the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

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