Monday, September 06, 2004


In a Labour Day opinion piece in the Toronto Star, Amela Karbegovic and Jason Clemens argue for Ontario to adopt greater 'worker choice' laws akin to those enacted in many American 'right to work states.' Essentially Karbegovic and Clemens want to see laws that would allow people to join a unionized workplace or profession but opt-out of financially supporting that union. They employ three common anti-union arguments in making their point, which are futher based on two stereotypically negative underlying assumptions about unions.

The three arguments that are made infavour of worker choice laws and against unionization are the following: 1) that unions hold a monopoly of power in the workplace, 2) that Ontrio's current labour laws deny workers freedom of choice 3) that 'worker choice' laws are preferable in that they transfer more power to the 'ordinary worker.' Lets take a look at these three arguments.

The authors write:

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.

It can hardly be said, however, that unions have a monopoly of power in the Canadian workplace. Later in this very article the authors indicate that currently only 32 percent of the Canadian workforce is unionized. Certainly within particular professions or sectors of the economy unions have a significant degree of power, however, looking at the workplace as a whole, unions hardly hold a monopoly. This argument also assumes that 'unions' are a single monolithic force, which they rarely are. The past several years has seen intense competition for members between unions, particularly the CAW and the United Steel Workers.

Following from their first argument, Karbegovic and Clemens argue that unions and Ontario labour laws deny 'ordinary workers' the freedom of choice they deserve. In comparing Canadian law to American they write, "the Canadian standard requires not only mandatory membership but also the payment of full dues." First, to my knowledge, this is only half true. While membership in the union is not mandatory payment of dues is, which I admit makes the former really just a point of principle without much real consequence.

However, to address the larger point, current Ontario labour laws do not deny anyone a significant degree of choice and they maintain a balance between the rights of already unionized employees and those who may not want to be unionized. First, as I have argued more extensively in a previous post, if a person is adamantly opposed to joining a union and paying dues, he or she simply has to CHOOSE not to join a unionized profession or workplace. With only 32 percent of the Canadian workforce unionized (down from 34 percent in 1987) that leaves a significant portion of the workforce open to choose from. Secondly, if an anti-union person really wants to work at a unionized workplace they have the right to attempt to de-certify the union in that workplace. This seems entirely fair and democratic. There is no reason why a handful of new employees who oppose an already existing union should be allowed to undermine the hard and just organization of long-time employees. However, if a majority of employees choose (there's that word again) that they don't want to be unionized, the de-certification porcess is clearly laid out for them in their workplace (as required by law). It seems to me that one of the cherished principles of our society is that a person cannot simply want something and expect to get it. They have to work for it and achieve it fairly. Union de-certification lives up to these principles.

Thirdly, Karbegovic and Clemens argue that 'worker choice' laws would transfer more power to 'ordinary workers.' Actually, worker choice laws would give more power to employers. Such laws would allow employers (who have monopoly power on hiring) to bring in employees whom are opposed to unionization or simply unaware of the benefits of unionization and thereby undermine the collective strength of the senior unionized employees.

Finally, the underlying assumptions of Karbegovic and Clemens argument are that 1) unions are bad for 'ordinary workers' because they don't represent them, and 2) 'unions' and 'ordinary workers' are separate and opposed entities.

The reality is that unions provide excellent benefits for their membership and that unions are entirely democratically based organizations. On average unionized employees earn higher wages, have greater job security, and hold better health care and pension benifits than non-unionized workers. Unions, from the local level to the upper leadership, are accountable to the 'ordinary workers' through regular elections, open general meetings, and strict financial controls.

Finally, the assumption that the union and the workers are somehow separate bodies is simply not true. The union and its membership are synonymous. Without the support of the 'ordinary worker' there would be no union. The idea that 'union bosses' are elite bullies is simply stereotypical. For three years a teacher from my local high school served as the president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. He led negotiations with the province, organized the union, and appeared in the media regularly. When his term was finished he retuned to teaching biology and walking the halls of my school.

Unions are the ordinary workers. They are the united voice of common people, democratically organized, and working hard to represent their own interests.

Today is a celebration of those basic principles and the benefits they have achieved, tempered by a reminder of the work that lies ahead against the likes of Karbegovic and Clemens.

Posted by Matthew @ 4:55 p.m.