TORONTO (CP) -- It may be time for the Canadian Auto Workers to think about changing its name.
The union's auto-sector membership has declined by half since 1990, with 40 percent of that plunge coming in the last four years as the Detroit Three automakers -- which along with their suppliers account for virtually all of the CAW's auto members -- cut production and laid off workers in response to slumping demand for their products.
When the CAW was spun off from the United Auto Workers in 1985, 68 percent of its members worked in the auto industry, and 90 percent worked in some form of manufacturing.
Today, the union estimates that 21 percent of its members are employed by automakers and their suppliers, and only 45 percent are involved in the manufacturing sector.
As CAW economist Jim Stanford put it, this is "a lucky thing" for the union, which can probably attribute its survival to a diversification strategy it has been pursuing for almost 25 years.
Today, the union employs 225,000 workers in the auto, fisheries, mining, transportation, hospitality, gaming, telecommunications, health-care and education sectors.
Although none of these industries is immune to the recession currently plaguing workers in Canada and around the world -- the CAW saw its overall membership decline by an estimated 12 percent in the last year alone -- Stanford said diversification has helped soften the blow from a rapidly shrinking auto sector.
"The whole idea of organizing new members is a fundamental and essential challenge for all unions," he said.
"It's all the more important for us because of the significant job losses we've experienced in the manufacturing sector."
The CAW has merged with several other unions over the years, including the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers in 1994, the United Electrical Union in 1995, the Retail Wholesale Union in 1999 and breakaway units of the Services Employees International Union -- including 20,000 health-care workers -- in 2001.
President Ken Lewenza said the union is currently working on expanding its membership in retail, universities and long-term care facilities, but hasn't given up on organizing non-unionized workers in the auto sector either.
He said the CAW has seen an increase in the number of calls from Honda and Toyota workers interested in joining the union in recent months, although "by no stretch of the imagination is it the majority."
When the CAW was asked to negotiate new labor agreements with General Motors and Chrysler as part of the companies' restructuring efforts, the union was told labor costs had to be cut to levels competitive with Toyota and Honda. New agreements managed to slash both companies' labor costs without cutting workers' base wages.
"When we were doing well, Honda and Toyota benefited as a result of the employer providing similar compensation," Lewenza said.
"Now, on the way down, Honda and Toyota will feel that pain too. So if we could attract them at the CAW, we'd be stronger, not just at Honda and Toyota but in the industry more generally."
Stanford said the CAW has been attempting to unionize Honda and Toyota workers for a decade, but the struggles of the Detroit Three have hurt that push.
"It's obviously a challenge for us when workers in those factories see the Detroit Three downsizing, then they start to associate unionization with losing your job," he said.
Still, Lewenza predicted Canadian employees of the two Japanese automakers will realize they need a union eventually as their comparatively young workforce ages and starts to worry about retirement, pensions and health-care benefits.
Charlotte Yates, a labor analyst and dean of social sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, said recessions tend to strengthen employers, making it a difficult time for unions to attract new members.
"Even though there may be strong interest in a union and strong support for a union, employers are emboldened and strengthened, and therefore they fight harder against unions," Yates said.
"During the depths of recessions tends to be a bad time to get membership to join, but it's often a good time to start building long-term support," she added.
Now may be the time for the CAW to consider "actively supporting" Magna International chief executive Frank Stronach's bid to produce electric cars in Canada, Yates said.
And the union could attract support from outside its ranks by continuing to push broader issues such as pension reform, she added.
Stanford said the recession does pose a threat to the CAW and its membership, but there are also opportunities if it responds "forcefully and creatively" instead of "climbing into a defensive shell."
"This recession is both a very challenging threat and also a very interesting opportunity. It's a threat because the things we have fought to build for decades are under incredible pressure and there the job is to hang onto what we can," he said.
"But it's also an opportunity for us to talk to workers, including non-union workers, and remind them that no matter how friendly your employer talks, how much they try to make you feel part of the family, you're never secure just depending on the good will of your employer."
In 2008, the CAW had 255,000 members, with 24 percent in the auto industry, 23 percent in other manufacturing jobs and 53 percent in non-manufacturing sectors. The union estimates that it has 225,000 members this year, with most of the decline coming from the auto industry.