National Post columnist Terence Corcoran wrote another of his regular scathing attacks on unions and collective bargaining as an institution this past week. In this week’s piece, he argues that workers don’t want unions, even those that are in them. Let’s dissect this week`s big insights. Corcoran’s argument is summarized in this opening passage:
[Unions] can’t … organize the relatively lower-paid workers at even one Wal-Mart outlet, despite more than a decade of trying and millions of dollars spent. They tried the banks and came up dry. Toyota Canada workers won’t have them. Michelin tire makers in the Maritimes have thrown the unions out a dozen times. As far as Canada’s private-sector workers are concerned, polls and the membership data show, they don’t want no stinkin’ union.
Is this an accurate account?
Well, Toyota workers don’t join unions because their employer generally matches what the Canadian Auto Workers bargain at their competitors. So while it’s true that Toyota workers’ probably don’t feel the need to join the union, they owe their good paying jobs directly to collective bargaining by the CAW. It’s true also that Michelin in the Maritimes is nonunion, but that too has historical context. In the late 1970s, when Michelin workers wanted to unionize, the Nova Scotia government passed the infamous “Michelin Amendment”, which is still taught in law schools as an example of how anti-union governments can use the legal model to prevent workers form unionizing when large employers threaten to disinvest if workers unionize. Many other rubber and tire companies are unionized.
Corcoran is correct about the difficulties unions have had organizing Wal-Mart. But to suggest that this means Wal-Mart workers are happy being nonunion is a real stretch. Wal-Mart has a history of breaking the law when its workers try to unionize, such as by threatening to close the store and fire everyone if the union wins (see Windsor Wal-Mart). And when, against all odds, the workers actually do join a union, Wal-Mart does close the store and fire everyone (see Jonquiere, Quebec). It doesn’t take a genius to guess why Wal-Mart employees aren’t rushing into the arms of unions. We have no way of testing whether Wal-Mart workers would like a union if they didn’t think they would lose their job because of it. Wal-Mart has effectively destroyed that possibility.
Union Density and Support for Unionization Are Very Different Measures
The main problem with Corcoran’s argument is his mistaken assumption that union density–the percentage of employees covered by a collective agreement–reflects employee demand for unions. He assumes that if someone is not in a union, it must be because they don’t want to be in a union. False. Consider this scenario to see why:
Assume every workplace in Canada is nonunion, and the law requires a union to obtain majority support of all employees in a workplace to win collective bargaining rights. Unions begin to organize the workplaces. Assume now that all employees in each workplace participate in a vote, and 50 percent of employees in every bargaining unit in the country vote for the union. In that case, we could say that 50 percent of Canadians support collective bargaining and unions.
What would the union density be in this scenario?
Answer: ZERO. The union would lose every vote, even though 50 percent of employees in every vote wanted to be in a union. That is how our peculiar legal model works in Canada and the U.S. Even if you want collective bargaining, you can’t get it, unless a majority of your co-workers also want it, and a union happens to come along that is prepared to invest the resources to organize everyone.
Corcoran would have you believe that union density tells us how much workers want unions. He is wrong. There are many, many reasons why people who are supportive of unions and collective bargaining may nevertheless not be covered by a collective agreement.
First, note a point about how union density is calculated. It is a fraction, like this:
Number of Employees Covered by a Collective Agreement / Total Number of Employees
The Denominator includes loads of employees who are specifically excluded from our collective bargaining laws in Canada, such as: managers, lawyers, doctors, architects, dentists, land surveyors, domestic workers, agricultural workers, and various other employees. Each province has its own list of employees who are excluded from collective bargaining coverage. These “employees” count as non-union employees in the Denominator, even though under our legal model we would not expect them to ever appear in the numerator, since the law does not give them access to collective bargaining.
A better estimate of would be the percentage of employees who are not excluded from collective bargaining by the state. But our labour statisticians don’t do that, because it would be harder to calculate, because in any event, they are not intending “union density” to be a proxy for what workers think about unions. They’re just telling us how many unionized workers there are. Corcoran misses that distinction, or chooses to ignore it.
That is one reason why the union density statistic is not a proxy for what Canadian employees think about unionization. But more telling is the fact that, in sharp contrast to Corcoran’s claims, “polls” of workers in Canada and the U.S. demonstrate clearly that many, many more workers would like to be unionized than actually are, as I have noted before.
For example, in the most thorough survey of Canadian workers, Meltz & Lipset (two of the most respected industrial relations scholars in North America) found that, while the private sector unionization rate in Canada is about 22%, over 30 percent of the remaining nonunion employees in the private sector would vote in favour of union if given the opportunity. The retail sector is only 11.6 percent unionized, but over 31% of nonunion workers would vote for a union if asked. The financial sector unionization rate is only 3.5%, but over 33 % of the nonunion workers would vote for a union if only they were given that opportunity.
You get the idea. While just under a third of employees in Canada are actually unionized, about 1 in 3 more of the remaining nonunion employees would like to be unionized, but haven’t been given that option.
And there’s more to this story. Corcoran says that we can’t know whether unionized workers really want to unionized. Wrong again, my friend. We have a pretty good idea that they do. In the Meltz & Lipset survey, a full 85.8% of unionized workers surveyed indicated that they would vote to remain in the union if given the opportunity to leave. The idea espoused by anti-union commentators like Corcoran that there are all sorts of trapped union members who can’t get out fits with their view of the world, but is complete fiction.
Summing up, then, considering the number of people in unions who would like to remain unionized and the number of nonunion workers who wish they could be unionized, we are left with a figure of around 50 percent of Canadian employees who would support unionization if given the opportunity to participate in free vote.
All of this tells informed industrial relations observers that there is a large disconnect between the desire to be unionized and actual union density. In short, many Canadians (and even more Americans) wish they could be unionized, but they aren’t. Industrial relations scholars call this an unsatisfied demand for unionization, and they look for ways to reduce it, so that people who want collective bargaining can actually get it. People like Corcoran are not interested in making collective bargaining available to people who want it, since they believe collective bargaining is inherently wrong.
That’s an opinion people are free to have, of course. My only point here is that Corcoran’s simplistic and unsubstantiated claim that Canadians “don’t want no stinkin’ unions” just ain’t supported by the stinkin’ facts.
Not that Corcoran and his like would care about such irritating details.