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We Compared Student Views on Minimum Wage, Unions, Income Inequality at York & Cornell

How do undergraduate business students in Canada and the United States feel about employment regulation, unions and collective bargaining, and income inequality?  Do they see the world of work law differently?

This term, I teamed up with Visiting Professor Wilma Liebman, who is best known for her

Cornell University

Cornell University, Ithaca

position as the former Chair of the American National Labor Relations Board.  Wilma retired from that position in 2011, and is now doing a visiting professor stint at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, New York.  Professor Liebman is teaching an undergraduate course in labor and employment law.  I’m also teaching a third year undergraduate business school course in employment law at Toronto’s York University.

We both distributed an anonymous, 5 question survey at the beginning of the term, before we had started teaching any substantive material on the law. Therefore, we were interested in the student opinions that they bring to the class.  The survey asked about three substantive areas:  (1)  the appropriateness of minimum wage regulation; (2) the value (or lack thereof) of unions and collective bargaining; and (3) whether income inequality in the two countries is a cause for concern necessitating a legal response.

Here is the survey, with the comparative results from the students in the two countries.  Obviously the sample size is too small to draw any big conclusions, but the results are

York University, Toronto

York University, Toronto

nevertheless interesting.  It may be fun to turn this project into a real study that uses a large survey of students from across the two countries, but that’s for down the road.

Some general observations:

Students in both classes were very supportive of minimum wage legislation.  A larger segment of American students (13% versus 2%), opposed minimum wage legislation as a harmful interference in the free operation of labor markets.

The Canadian students demonstrated greater support for collective bargaining and unions than did the American students.

  • 75% of Canadian students responded that unions should be encouraged, compared to only 51% of American students. Moreover, 21% of American students (compared to only 4% of Canadians) responded that unions interfere with competitiveness and should not be encouraged.
  • The two groups of students had similar views on the question of whether unions have too much or too little power. 19% in both countries thought unions are too powerful, while 33% in the US and 26% in Canada thought unions were not powerful enough. About half of the students in both polls had no opinion on union power.
  • Student views on strikes were almost identical, with 82% in both countries saying that strikes are healthy response to perceived unfair treatment, but should be should be closely regulated by the government.

Interestingly, there was a noticeable variance of opinion on income inequality. Close to a third (29%) of American students responded that income inequality is not a cause of concern, and simply reflects the proper functioning of free markets, which reward hard work and skill. Only 11% of Canadian students believed that.

A third of the Canadian students responded that income inequality is a cause for concern,and that governments should promote more collective bargaining to enable workers to bargain higher wages. Only 15% of Americans chose this option. An almost identical amount of students in both countries (57% in the US, 56% in Canada) responded that income inequality is a cause of concern, and that governments should be encouraging a broader distribution of wealth through means other than promoting unionization.

Issues for Discussion

1.  Do the student responses correspond with your own opinions?

2.  Is there any reason you can think of why would we should expect views on employment regulation, collective bargaining, and income inequality to vary between the two countries?


2 Responses to We Compared Student Views on Minimum Wage, Unions, Income Inequality at York & Cornell

  1. John Brennand Reply

    September 27, 2013 at 4:49 am

    As a union member & activist, it is almost pointless for me to give my views on the questions, it would be weird if my responses weren’t based on my activism. On the results of the survey, I don’t find much surprising. American mass media, particularly Fox News, is broadly biased against unions and their potential to (marginally) redress the power imbalance between workers and employers. Canadian media is in no way supportive of unions, but they are less prone to demonize unions, Sun News being the exception.
    The recent attempts by the federal Reform Party, aka the Conservative Party, and the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak, are doing their best to push the debate towards American style ‘right to work’ and other union busting policies. The federal government has made a concerted effort to interfere in the collective bargaining process (Air Canada, CP Rail, etc) and have been fairly successful in suppressing critical comment.

  2. Pingback: Student Attitudes on Labor Issues: A U.S./Canada Comparison | ON LABOR

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