Unionism All About Limiting Choice

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Appeared in the National Post, 05 January 2005
Some argue that Canada’s high union rates reflect a more collectivist culture than that of our southern neighbours. At a superficial level, the respective union rates of the two countries supports this argument: Canada’s unionization rate was much higher at 32.4% of employment than the United States’14.3% in 2003. The true cause of the difference, however, has nothing to do with a more collectivist mentality and everything to do with a larger public sector and a lack of worker choice regarding union support.

There are three types of jurisdictions in Canada and the United States when it comes to worker choice laws, or what in the United States are referred to as right-to-work (RTW) laws. U.S. states generally provide workers with a choice as to whether or not they want to join a union and pay full dues. Specifically, workers can opt out of union dues that are not directly related to representation-related spending, such as political and social activities, and in 22 U.S. states extended federal labour laws have allowed workers the additional choice of whether to pay any dues at all.

Canadian workers, on the other hand, are not granted such options. All Canadian provinces as well as the federal government, in one way or another, permit mandatory union membership and the remittance of full union dues as a condition of employment in organized firms.

Jurisdictions that afford their workers more choice with respect to union membership and the payment of dues tend to have lower union rates than those that offer less choice. Researchers Daphne Gottlieb Tara and Allen Ponak published an important study in 2001 on this topic in the Journal of Labor Research. They noted that for most of the 20th century, union rates between Canada and the United States as well as union growth rates were very similar. More importantly, they noted that after 1966 union patterns began to differ in the two countries and that a substantial gap developed. They attributed this divergence to differences in worker choice laws.

Permitting workers choice with respect to whether or not to join a union and remit full dues if they want to work in a unionized firm results in lower union rates. Put differently, when workers are given a choice, they choose to be collectively represented to a far lesser degree.

The second explanation, and one intricately linked with a lack of worker choice, is the size of the public sectors in the two countries. The public sector, because of its structure, is much easier to organize than private sector firms. The public sector of today in many ways resembles the old industrialized firms of the past. For instance, a union can effectively organize an entire category of workers, such as teachers or nurses, in the public sector that would be almost impossible to do in the private sector. According to a recent paper by Statistics Canada, about 83% of nurses and 91% of elementary and secondary teachers were unionized as of the end of 2003, almost all of those positions being in the public sector.

Not surprisingly, both Canada and the United States maintain much higher rates of unionization in the public sector than in the private sector. For instance, in 2003, 75.6% of the public sector in Canada was unionized, compared with only 19.9% of the private sector. Similarly, in the United States, 41.5% of the public sector was unionized compared with a little over 9% of the private sector.

The fact that Canada has a much larger government sector and thus more government employees as a percentage of total employment is an important factor in explaining higher union rates. In 2003, public sector employment in Canada represented almost 18% of total employment whereas it only represented 14.4% in the United States.

Canada maintains higher rates of unionization not because Canadian workers choose collective representation but because they lack choice with respect to union representation and because of our much larger public sector. Affording Canadian workers more choice and allowing more competitive models of program delivery (less public sector employment) would clearly result in lower union rates.

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