The Difference Between Labour and Unions, the U.S. and Canada

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun, 31 August 2006
On Sept. 4, Canadian and American cities will hold barbecues, parades and picnics celebrating labour.

Given the respite from our day-to-day work routine, it is worth reflecting upon what exactly we are celebrating. It is time for us to celebrate the wonders of human labour instead of the foibles of unionism.

Human labour coupled with imagination and the right institutions has provided societies with a previously unimaginable prosperity and standard of living.

Labour is a dynamic process through which individuals add value to raw materials and give form to ideas only previously imagined. At the heart of the labour process is the opportunity for individuals to provide for themselves and their families a standard of living based on their own hard work, ingenuity and creativity. These achievements are worthy of a celebration.

Yet, our Labour Day celebrations are more about unionism than the underlying labour. This misunderstanding between the relative value of labour and unionism is at the heart of a series of Canadian laws designed to benefit unionism, which unfortunately comes at the expense of average workers.

One example is worker choice. If labour laws focused upon individual workers rather than unions, one would expect a healthy balance between the ability of workers to represent themselves collectively through a union and their right to reject such choices.

However, in every Canadian jurisdiction workers can be compelled to join a union as a condition of their employment. In addition, Canadian workers must pay full union dues regardless of the nature of union spending. That is, even if a significant portion of union spending has nothing to do with representing workers (i.e. political and social advocacy) and individual workers disagree with such spending, they have no choice but to pay full union dues.

U.S. laws, on the other hand, strike a much better balance and tend to favour individual workers. For example, American workers cannot be forced to join a union. In addition, American workers can opt out of union dues that are not directly related to their collective bargain and representation-related activities. Twenty-two states have gone even further and allowed workers to opt out completely of union dues.

The difference in worker choice laws is heightened by differences in how unions become certified. In the U.S., a secret ballot vote is required to certify a union. In five Canadian provinces, as well as the federal government, secret ballot voting is not required.

In other words, a Canadian company can become unionized and all employees compelled to join a union and pay full union dues without an anonymous, secret ballot vote.

These differences are intensified by union disclosure laws. Even though the U.S. allows workers choice with respect to union membership and dues payments, they impose strict financial disclosure laws on unions. In particular, unions must disclose the difference between spending related to representing union members and non-representation spending such as political and social activism.

In stark contrast, Canadian workers, who can be compelled to join and financially support unions, confront a dearth of union disclosure requirements.

No Canadian jurisdiction requires disclosure in a manner that allows for anonymous access. In addition, no jurisdiction prescribes the type, quality, or quantity of information disclosed. Also, no jurisdiction requires that unions disclose the percentage or dollar amount of union dues spent on activities related to representing members versus other activities not related to their representation.

It is clear that, while Canada and the U.S. share Labour Day as a holiday, the two countries take very different positions in promoting and regulating labour.

This divide in labour laws is one explanation for the significant difference in Canadian and American union rates: 32 versus 14 per cent in 2005.

As we enjoy a day away from our work, perhaps Canadians will be motivated to think about what it is that we celebrate.

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