Worker Choice Laws Pro-worker, Not Anti-Union

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Appeared in the Toronto Star, 06 September 2004

Most Canadians are well aware of the pitfalls of regulated monopolies: no real competition, no choice, less efficiency, and lower quality products and services. It is surprising, then, that our labour relations laws continue to provide unions with monopoly power.

This means that in order to secure employment with a unionized firm, workers in Canada in one way or another are forced to support the representative union.

This need not be. Adopting admittedly ill-named right-to-work laws, which are better called worker choice laws, would allow workers to choose whether they want to join a union and support it financially.

The chances of adopting these laws in Canada, however, are remote in the short term because of the massive misunderstanding regarding such laws, largely the result of misinformation distributed by union bosses.

Take Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Last September, he predicted that such laws would replace collective bargaining with billy clubs and would ultimately force children to work.

Georgetti’s B.C. counterpart, Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, argued that adopting worker choice laws would make Canada’s labour laws similar to those of Rwanda. Sinclair’s equivalent in Saskatchewan, Larry Hubich, likened supporters of worker choice laws to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

One only needs to recognize the massive power shift that would occur from unions to ordinary workers to understand why respected union leaders have resorted to such venomous attacks.

Worker choice laws are entirely designed to benefit workers by providing them with more representation choice and simultaneously forcing union leaders to be more accountable and responsive to their membership.

There are effectively three types of jurisdictions in Canada and the United States when it comes to worker choice.

The first group are the 28 U.S. states that do not have worker choice laws. Workers in these states can choose whether to pay full union membership and full union dues. Federal law in the U.S. makes it illegal to require union membership as a condition of employment.

Workers are also able to opt out of union dues that are not related to representation. In other words, if unions want to pursue social or political goals, workers are permitted to have their union dues reduced proportionately if they do not want their dues supporting such activities.

The second group are the 22 right-to-work (RTW) states that have expanded on federal legislation in order to allow workers in these states to fully opt out of union dues.

The only difference between RTW and non-RTW states is that workers in RTW states can opt out of the payment of full union dues whereas workers in non-RTW states must pay at least the percentage of union dues that actually are spent on representation-related expenses.

Put differently, the U.S. standard is to allow choice regarding membership but require the payment of representation-related dues.

The Canadian standard requires not only mandatory membership but also the payment of full dues.

Some labour economists argue that the difference in how Canadian and U.S. labour law address union security is one of the fundamental reasons for the divergence of unionization rates between Canadian provinces and U.S. states.

That is, if we let employees choose whether or not to join a union, fewer employees will choose to join.

In Canada, the unionization rate was 32.4 per cent in 2003, whereas in non-RTW and RTW states it was 16.6 and 8.4 per cent respectively.

The results from comparing jurisdictions with choice versus those without indicate that workers choose to be collectively represented by unions to a much lesser degree when provided with a choice regarding representation.

Moreover, Canada is somewhat of an anomaly within industrialized countries. Only Canada and Australia retain mandatory union membership and mandatory remittance of full dues. Most other industrialized countries have opted to permit some level of worker choice.

As Canadian workers begin to recognize that worker choice laws are not anti-union but rather pro-worker, perhaps more of them will begin to demand change.

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