Tensions are rising at the bargaining table.
The sluggish economy, globalization, and pension shortfalls have put pressure on employers to cut costs, which will likely cause lasting problems for unions around the world as they fight for job security and better deals.
"Unless they think of creative solutions or are willing to make tradeoffs, we're going to see more industrial conflict, not less," said Richard Chaykowski, professor of industrial relations at Queen's University.
There is certainly no shortage of trouble for organized labour. While the Canadian Union of Postal Workers continues its rotating strikes against Canada Post, Air Canada unions are rallying today and could soon set a strike date.
In Europe, the mounting debt crisis has made government jobs a frequent target. Public sector workers in Greece are demonstrating Thursday against imminent cutbacks. In Spain, government officials are meeting to discuss labour reforms.
Mr. Chaykowski blames globalization for the problems unions face today, as companies are forced to try to reduce costs in order to compete in a global economy. Labour is often one of the first targets for cutbacks, he said.
"If companies feel like they can't get the deals they need here, they can shift production to other parts of the world," he added.
The power of unions at the bargaining table has declined worldwide because of increased mobility and fewer labour restrictions in developing economies.
Governments also feel the financial pressure, which can cause major problems for public sector employees seeking more benefits or better wages, he said.
Going forward, Mr. Chaykowski said, it's not looking good for unions.
"The only thing that could change that is if globalization starts to slow or even reverses, for example if countries put up trade barriers."
However, fledging labour movements in Asian countries might eventually help the case for unions around the world, Mr. Chaykowski said. If workers start to organize in places such as China, it would be less appealing for companies to outsource production and force them to listen to workers at home. But that could take decades, Mr. Chaykowski added.
In the meantime, some union tactics, such as the postal workers' strike, can be risky strategies, said Morley Gunderson, professor of industrial relations at the University of Toronto.
They're flexing their muscles and they obviously know what they're doing, but what if people say, 'I don't even use stamps any more?'" Mr. Gunderson said. "It runs the risk of people wanting to privatize Canada Post completely."
There have been four major work stoppages by Canadian unions since the beginning of 2011, according to Human Resources and Skills Development of Canada. Nearly 1,000 steelworkers at US Steel Canada Inc. have been locked out since November 2010 in a fight over pension plans. NAV Canada, the New Brunswick government, and the Council of Academic Hospitals of Ontario, meanwhile, are heading into talks.