There are picket lines and protest slogans in my bloodline. As a child, my dad would sometimes mention that my grandfather had been the head of the Boilermakers Lodge 146 union. This piece of information was presented matter-of-factly, and sometimes with slight admiration. Even without a good grasp of what a union was, I knew that they were important and beneficial.
The fragile and naive perspective was shattered once I grew up and encountered an unexpected opinion: unions aren’t actually good for workers.
Unfortunately, the discussion isn’t as simple as ‘worker versus employer’; at least, not when the discussion falls between two workers.
To the anti-union worker, a union is like an overly doting mother, coddling her children even if it hinders their progress. In the context of this comparison, progress is the company’s success — maximization of profits and quality services or products. Unionization can potentially protect poor workers and stop progress in the name of safety.
Another criticism of unions is that they’re ineffective.
Despite polarization on the topic, unionization does yield positive results for workers and external communities. Not only are workers able to bargain for reasonable work conditions and wages, but these benefits also translate into lower turnover rates. Unionization also promotes the reduction of income inequality; in response, nonunionized jobs sometimes follow suit and increase wages to prevent their employees from quitting.
But, people disagree. They can’t see unions being effective; they stop production and hurt productivity. In my opinion, anti-union sentiments are the result of Americanized coverage of unions.
One only needs to look at the unionization rates in the U.S. compared to Canada. In the U.S., union membership rate was a paltry 10.1 per cent in 2022; Canada’s membership rate was nearly 29 per cent. Low unionization rates also contribute to the negative perception towards unions.
In terms of economic values, Americans tend to value laissez-faire capitalism. How often do we hear about the heroic tales of self–made billionaires who started in their parents’ garage (with a meagre sum of a few thousand dollars). While Canada is comparable in its perception of capitalism, it isn’t nearly as divided or drastic as the U.S. Then again, American companies put a lot more effort into discouraging unionization and pushing the narrative that unions hurt companies and workers.
The idea that unions are ineffective is not something that randomly appeared someday. Regardless of whether you’re pro-union or anti-union, it probably helps to contemplate why people think unions are ineffective. Where did this narrative come from? Which actors are endorsing this narrative, and what are the stakes for them?
But, me, I’m a union (wo)man.