Follow Me on Twitter

Why Do Workers Support Policies To Weaken Labour Rights?

My colleague here at York University, Tony Fang, found a while back that the union wage premium in Canada is about 7.7% (see page 13), meaning that unionized workers earn that much more on average than nonunion workers. Unionized workers also receive significantly better benefits and pension plans.  Since polls suggest people are very concerned about growing income inequality, it might seem logical that they would also support policies and practices that put more money into the hands of working folks.

Thus, if you are a nonunion worker earning less than what a unionized worker earns, a rational response would be to say, “Why am I doing the same work for less pay, less job security, and fewer benefits?  I should join a union too.”  Some people do think that way.  But many people do not, and respond to the better paid unionized workers with hostility. They say, “those damned greedy unionized workers, we should get rid of unions, and strip those workers of their better pay and benefits“.

It’s perfectly understandable why employers and conservative politicians and think tanks argue against collective bargaining and better wages and benefits enjoyed by unionized workers.  Their interest is in maximizing corporate profits, executive compensation, and shareholder dividends by giving less of the pie to workers, and in the case of the Conservative or Republican Party, in weakening an effective political foe in the labor movement.

Much more interesting is why the average worker would side with an argument for lowering wages and benefits.

I was thinking about this after I was interviewed on a radio station recently, and the host said that “people” are angry at the wages of union workers, and she asked me what I had to say to those people.  I said that maybe they should join a union.  The host gagged.  Apparently that wasn’t the answer she was looking for.  What do you think was the “correct” answer to that question?

Why Do Working People Support Policies Designed to Lower the Pay, Benefits of Working People?

This piece in the New Yorker describes  how nonunionized workers in the US experience ‘resentment’ over better wages and benefits enjoyed by unionized workers. In past times, workers responded by seeking out good unionized jobs themselves. However, in more recent times,  America workers are responding to this resentment  by supporting initiatives designed to strip labour rights.

Robert Frank

I read an interesting book by Robert Frank, called Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class. He provides an interesting insight into this question by using a model that is something like this.  He imagines two worlds that are identical (ie.  prices of goods are the same in both worlds), except for one thing:

World A: You earn $100,000, but everyone else earns $120,000.

World B:  You earn $80,000, but everyone else earns $60,000.

In World A, you can buy a bigger house and nicer stuff than in World B, but everyone else can buy even nicer stuff and more stuff than you.  In World B, you can afford less of everything, but that would still be more than everyone else could buy.  In other words, you are relatively better off in World B compared to everyone else, but you are absolutely better off in World A.

Which world would you prefer to live in?

Frank says that most people select World B.  They are concerned more about how they fare relative to others than the absolute level of their income.  That might help explain why many nonunion workers get angry when they learn that unionized workers earn more than them, and why their first response might not be  to try and bring their wage levels up to the unionized rate by joining a union themselves.

They want other people’s wages to come down more than they want their wages to go up.  They are more concerned with doing relatively better off than the next guy than they are in raising their own absolute income level.   Frank’s insights might also help explain why the vast majority of unionized workers are happy with being in the union:  Lipset and Meltz found that 90.5% of American and 85.8% of Canadian union members would vote to remain in the union if asked.  Theses statistics refute claims by antiunion folks like Tim Hudak and Conservative politicians, who like to argue that there are large numbers of trapped union members who just can’t escape from their union oppressors.

Professor Harry Arthurs, Canada’s eminent labour law scholar, has offered this insightful explanation for the apparent paradox of low wage workers supporting politicians who want to gut labour and employment laws and undermine collective bargaining:


Harry Arthurs

the rise of non-standard employment has not only cost millions of workers their rights, benefits, and sense of ‘identity and self-worth’. By widening the gulf and shifting the numerical balance between workers still protected by labour law and those who are not, it may also have contributed to a new political dynamic in which have-not workers acquiesce in or support efforts to strip the haves of their advantages. (Labour Law After Labour)

Harry’s making the same basic point as Frank.  Employer preferences for fewer standard, full-time workers and government policies designed to weaken employment laws and access to collective bargaining are growing Canada’s income inequality and creating huge pools of marginalized workers (as explained by Professor Michael Lynk in this paper).  Yet many of these workers are responding by supporting policies they think will bring the relatively better off workers down to their level, rather than policies that would attempt to bring them up to improved levels.

Related Posts

“Unions Make Happier Societies, says Academic Study”

Most Highly Unionized Countries Top ‘Happiest List, Again. Why?

On ‘Bullshit’ in Labour Policy Debates

We Compared Students Views on Minimum Wage, Unions, and Income Inequality at York and Cornell

Canada’s Income Inequality Highest Ever on Record

Issue for Discussion

Do you think Frank’s story about people being driven mostly by a desire to do relatively better than others explains why low wage workers would support policies designed to strip other workers of benefits?

What do you think of Professor Arthurs’ claim that the growth in precarious work has caused precarious workers to support policies that strip more privileged workers of their rights and benefits?



10 Responses to Why Do Workers Support Policies To Weaken Labour Rights?

  1. Fernando Reis Reply

    May 25, 2013 at 12:48 am

    Unfortunately, this issue is not limited to the resentment that non-unionized employees may feel towards unionized employees. I can remember one example about 10 years ago in my union where there were 2 collective agreements covering workers in a large retail food chain. Collective agreement A was better than collective agreement B. The reason had to do with the adoption of a lesser collective agreement for stores that were experiencing significant financial problems. Later on, the union and employer opened up both collective agreements and improvements were made to both agreements. The biggest improvement, however, was to permit those with sufficient seniority to transfer into the better collective agreement A. At ratification, those employees who did not have sufficient seniority to transfer over to A but nevertheless had their working conditions improved, were extermely resentful at some workers for even doing better. The fact that A were already doing better than B was lost on them. The new agreements were ratified but only by a razor thin margin. It goes to one of my favourite expressions: “no good deed goes unpunished”.

  2. John Reply

    May 26, 2013 at 5:49 am

    “Since polls suggest people are very concerned about growing income inequality, it might seem logical that they would also support policies and practices that put more money into the hands of working folks.”

    I think joining a union with the goal of unionizing a workplace is a separate question from supporting something like legislation that makes it easier for unions to organize, or that gives unions more power at the bargaining table.

    Resentment of union wages isn’t the only possible explanation for why employees may not want to join a union. It seems quite plausible that many non-union employees simply do not believe that a unionized workplace will result in higher wages. They see stories in the news like the Caterpillar plant closure and that has far more impact than some dry statistic that never gets reported anywhere. In other words, they believe that a union will jeopardize their employment, not improve it.

    They may not support legislation making it easier to unionize a workplace for the same reason, but the more likely explanation for that is that they simply don’t know or care about the details of labour legislation anymore than they know or care about the details of legislation generally.

  3. Anonymous Reply

    May 29, 2013 at 1:26 am

    Perhaps some of these low-wage workers feel any of the following is true:
    -Their own investments will do better with lower unionization rates
    -If wages go down, employers will be able to hire more people, decreasing unemployment
    -High wages mean more companies go out of business
    -Higher wages mean higher prices for whatever is produced

    Or they sympathize with business owners more than other wage workers, or they are concerned with union abuses.

    • Fernando Reis Reply

      May 30, 2013 at 10:13 am

      What union abuses? Employer abuses are one of the principle reasons for joining a union.

  4. Dan McGarry Reply

    May 29, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    I would recommend Jim Stanford’s book and website Jim’s explanation of economics is both amusing and informative.

    As for Frank’s scenario, I believe that we inherently understand that this is a purely artificial/unworkable example and that is why B is the preferred response rather than blaming it purely on envy. Unless there is an unlimited supply of consumer goods/products, then those with a greater income will eventually succumb to the urge to accumulate more goods or purchase the best goods, creating a scarcity and either driving prices up, forcing those with lesser income to purchase these goods through a ‘black market’, or go without. The same applies to available services, which leads to inherent societal corruption. Frank appears to have fallen into the trap of the apocryphal French economist who asked “sure it works in practice but does it work in theory?”.

    I would offer the opinion that many unions have damaged their reputation/image with potential members by supporting international causes that many of these workers disagree with.

  5. Andres Reply

    May 29, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    Anonymous – are you suggesting that low wage earners support their lower wages because it means unemployment goes down? This seems terribly unlikely. As does the prospect that their investments will do better. Just how much investment income is your low-wage worker sitting on? Most lower income earners live paycheque to paycheque, and carry considerable consumer debt. It also seems unlikely people are reluctant to pursue a higher wage for themselves because it may lead to general inflation.

  6. David Collier-Brown Reply

    June 11, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    There is an interesting parallel here with other dog-in-the-manger behaviours, and what for purposes of succinctness I call the “physicist’s definition of evil”.

    The latter is increasing entropy for everyone in order to make your own position relatively better.

    Entropy is a measure of the disorder of the universe, and having more of it is a bad thing if you use any kind of organized energy, such as electricity, gas or oil. It means you have less of the electricity or gas to use.

    One of the problems the Soviet Union suffered from was a push by their version of the “aristocracy” to make their personal positions better, at the cost of making the world worse for everyone. They’re still trying to get out of the hole they dug to this day!

    In general, one shouldn’t want to increase entropy, inequality or evil, even if doing so will hurt others more than you. Unless, of course, you thing everyone would enjoy living in Russia in the days of the Soviet Union!


  7. AStern Reply

    June 11, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    Perhaps it isn’t a relative perception of wages and benefits, but a negative attitude towards unions that stem from normative ideologies of competition and free market values. Far too often have unions developed stagnant workplaces due to protection and seniority policies. A man whose ideology goes against unions is a man who believes that the market will set the price for labour based on need and competition of skills. I believe union policy has not adapted enough to current markets and should be subject to the same scrutiny that management is attacked with. Society calls it taboo to criticize representation of the people but as HR and management is steering towards valuing intangible capital and higher professional regulation thus higher occupational quality, what are unions doing to adapt? Principles in seniority and distributive negotiation just leaves us with a complacent and entitled work force.

  8. Jody Reply

    September 21, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    With strong regulation & enforcement to remove existing market imbalances that currently put nearly all the power in the hands of employers, maybe we wouldn’t need unions. Unfortunately, many workers who are even protected by such regulations can’t count on them being enforced unless they can find the funds for a legal battle. This is particularly true for low-wage workers.
    I’ve heard it said, and seen in action myself, that one of the most important functions unions serve here in Ontario is that of ensuring that their members’ legislated rights are respected by employers. Issues such as health & safety, prevention of wage theft, and prevention of dismissal without cause are the main ones as far as I can tell.
    Given that generally people work in order to make money to live, I’d say that as long as non-unionized workers need to go to court to enforce their rights in these 3 areas, unions are an absolute necessity.

  9. Pingback: Why do some workers support weakened labour rights?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>