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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

Wednesday, July 10, 1991

Knowing Your Onions

Published: Globe and Mail, Toronto [actual day unknown]

I cannot resist rising to the bait so skillfully deployed by John Allemang in his recent column An Accent on Change (Word Play -- July 7).
It is highly unlikely that he heard any phrase refering to "onions" in a French class. "Knowing one's onions" was of course bandied around quite frequently in the English class. The phrase refers to Dr. C. T. Onions, who was one of the major editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, serving in the early years of this century. So "knowing one's onions" was true proof of one's deft use of the English language.
Martin G. Evans, Toronto.