Fraser Forum

Dispelling myths (Part 2): that worker choice "causes a widespread ‘free rider’ problem”

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This is the second of three blog posts responding to objections from those who oppose giving Canadian workers more choice when it comes to union membership and dues payment (see Part 1 here). A repeated concern is that, without mandatory union dues, workers can be represented by a union without paying the costs of representation. Such workers are often referred to as being “free riders.”

The real problem in Canada is that workers who are covered by a union contract do not have the option to opt-out of union representation or to hire another bargaining agent. Indeed, covered workers who prefer to negotiate their contract without union representation are not allowed to do so. So there can be situations where someone is forced to be represented by a union even though they may not necessarily want to be. These workers are hardly free riders.

An important study on worker choice in the U.S. by Professor Russell Sobel estimated that no more than 30 per cent of covered non-union members are “true free riders,” in the sense that they would choose to be union members if it was a condition for being covered by the union contract. Under the same conditions, the other (at least) 70 per cent of non-union members would likely opt-out of union representation if they could.

Allowing workers to bargain independently from the union would help limit the problem of free-riding while not forcing workers to join a union and pay dues. This is done in other countries such as New Zealand, where there is no mandatory union membership and dues payment and where unions only represent union members in bargaining with the employer.

Increasing worker choice by ending mandatory union membership and dues payment (or at least providing an opt-out provision for dues covering non-representation activities), would benefit workers. Concerns about free-riding could be greatly mitigated by allowing workers to represent themselves or hire another bargaining agent.


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