The story is familiar. The percentage of workers in unions in the United States was higher than in Canada until around the 1960s, at which time a stark divergence occurred. American union density plummeted from near 40% to its current rate of about 10%, while Canadian union density held tight near 38-40%. Scholars on both sides of the border have tried to explain this divergence for decades. Along with differences in labour laws, one of the most popular explanations was that Canadian employers were just less hostile towards unions than their American counterparts. Professor Paul Weiler (Osgoode, Harvard) was one of the leading voices on this point, arguing that American labor law should move towards the Canadian system, which gives employers less opportunity to wage a campaign to dissuade workers to unionize.
A new study in the Journal of Labor Research by U of T industrial relations professors Morley Gunderson, Rafael Gomez, and Michele Campolieti throws water on theory that Canadian managers are less hostile to unions. The paper is called “Managerial Hostility and Attitudes Towards Unions: A Canada-US Comparison”. [Those of you with access to a University electronic database can read it for free, but otherwise it is not publicly available online without access to the journal]
Here is the abstract:
We use a cross-country survey of attitudes toward work and unions, which includes a
sample of managers in both the US and Canada, to explore whether there is greater attitudinal hostility to unions in the U.S. Our estimates indicate that American manager’s attitudes towards unions are, perhaps surprisingly, less hostile than those of Canadian managers. We explain this first finding by the differential effect of perceived union power, which is greater in Canada than the US and which is correlated negatively with union approval. We also find that US managers are less likely to use extreme methods to oppose union organizing drives, implying that the lower union rates in the US as compared to Canada are not likely the result of greater negativity towards unions themselves but rather some other factor or combination of factors. The implication is that if Canadian managers faced the same labor relations playing field as their US counterparts, they would likely find it easier to thwart union certification drives as well. Alternatively stated, Canadian-style labor relations reforms (such as card-check systems or quicker certification votes) could perhaps tip the balance in favor of unions when organizing in the US.
Using data collected in 1996, the authors survey managerial attitudes to unions in Canada and the US. An interesting finding was that the more contact managers had with unions, the less hostile they were.
To know them is to love them?: “If managers had more contact with unions, they may view them more favourably too, given that there was higher union approval amongst managers in unionized workplaces as compared to nonunion workplaces in both countries.”
Questions for Discussion
Should law strictly regulate and punish employer resistance to worker union organizing?
In some jurisdictions (Canada’s Federal jurisdiction for example), employers are expected to remain neutral during organizing campaigns. In most other North American jurisdictions, employers can campaign against unions vigorsly, provided they do not use threats or coercion. Which approach do you think strikes a better balance?