When workers are free to choose, union rates decline.
There is a popular perception in some circles that business is the enemy and unions are the friends of the worker. Companies, so the story goes, selfishly want to exploit their employees, and unions selflessly want to defend them.
But although unions can serve a useful role, the above sketch cannot be the whole story. For if unions were always and everywhere a good thing, why would workers in the U.S. be voluntarily leaving them in droves?
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the union membership rate in the U.S. has fallen from 11.9% in 2011 to 11.3% in 2012, its lowest level since the Second World War.
One reason for the drop is the right-to-work laws adopted by certain states. These laws give workers the right to refuse to join a union or pay union dues. In Wisconsin and Indiana, two states that have recently enacted such laws, union membership fell by 13.5% and 19% respectively in 2012.
States have had the power to outlaw compulsory union membership and mandatory union dues since 1947, when the Taft-Hartley Act was adopted. Almost half of the 50 states have done so over the years, and union membership has fallen from around 35% in 1947.
Simply put, when labour laws are set up in such a way that allows workers real freedom of choice, union membership tends to decline. In contrast, Canada has maintained relatively coercive labour laws, including compulsory union membership and mandatory union dues. As a result, the union membership rate in this country has remained relatively stable since 1947 at around 29%.
Unions can do some good, and have done some good in the past. But when membership and dues are compulsory, workers are captive to their unions. Without having to earn workers' adherence or dues, unions have little incentive to represent their interests and end up spending collected dues on political and ideological activities.
I am not pro-union, but neither am I anti-union or pro-business per se. Rather, I am pro-freedom. The right to join a union is guaranteed by the principle of freedom of association, but freedom of association must include the freedom not to associate. It is only when workers can join and remain in unions without any coercion whatsoever that we can know for sure that unions are benefitting their members.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.
* This column appears in Sun Media newspapers, published both in several of Canada's key urban markets (Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and London) and in its 28 community dailies.