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Saturday, July 20, 1991

Unions in the Workplace

The Globe and Mail, Saturday, July 20, 1991
Unions in the workplace
Terence Corcoran recently cited some re­
search on unions that implies that many un­
ion members would prefer not being in a un­
ion and that, in fact, they would be better off
by not being in a union (Stop The 'Free'
Trade Union Movement Now - July 6). He
bases this latter claim on the fact that when
surveyed, a higher proportion of non-union
employees claim to be satisfied with their
. jobs than do union employees.
These claims need to be carefully exam­
ined. First, Mr. Corcoran ignores the histor­
ical development of unions. They arose out
of the need for countervailing power to res­
train the unbridled power of company own­
ers in their exploitation of their employees.
The fact that most non-union workplaces
are reasonable places to work with enlight­
ened employers is due to the battles of past
generations of working men and women to
gain those privileges in unionized work­
places. The number of enlightened employ­
ers a century ago was indeed few. In addi­
tion, trade unions are an integral part of our
pluralistic society. Although there have been
some abuses of unions' power, their general
contribution to the checks and balances in
society is a major contributor to democracy.
It is no accident that unions have been
among the first victims of totalitarian re­
gimes of both the left and the right
Second, Mr. Corcoran's point that union
members are less satisfied than their non-un­
ion counterparts, is subject to interpretation.
There are two possible explanations for the
survey results. The first, favoured by Profes­
sor Richard Freeman of Harvard, is that the
presence of a union encourages employees to
voice or express discontent while maintain­
inz iob securitv. In the absence of union pro-
tection, the most dissatisfied marketable em­
ployeeswill leave, as they cannot voice their
dissent and as a result only satisfied (and a
small number of dissatisfied but unmarketa­
ble) employees remain.
The second explanation is that it is not un­
ionization that results in dissatisfaction, but
differences in the nature of the jobs enjoyed
by union and non-union workers. This is the
explanation favoured by Professor John
Boudreau and his colleagues at Cornell, and
which has been supported in our own re­
search at the University of Toronto. What
we find is that union employment tends to be
concentrated in the more boring, less com­
plex jobs which may offer few opportunities
for job satisfaction. When this is taken into
account in research studies, no difference is
found between union members and their
non-union counterparts injob satisfaction
The remaining question is whether people
in boring and uninteresting jobs tend to un­
ionize, or do unions tend to prevent firms
from improving job content to make jobs
more interesting? The historical evidence fa­
vours the former explanation, but there are
some instances of the latter process occur­
ring. Many unions co-operate wholeheart­
edly with employer attempts to improve em­
ployee working life, but some others resist
such changes and press for high wages
instead. The question of unions' impact on
companies is an important one for the com­
petitiveness of Canadian industry. It de­
serves the kind of careful and reasoned anal­
ysis not apparent in Mr. Corcoran's com­
Martin G. Evans, Daniel A. Ondrack
Ani! Verma, Faculty of Management
University of Toronto

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