Are Labour Unions Obsolete in the New Global Economy?

By Wells, Don | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Summer-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Are Labour Unions Obsolete in the New Global Economy?


Wells, Don, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


AROUND THE WORLD UNIONS ARE IN DECLINE. FOR THE FIRST TIME since the 1960s the proportion of Canadians who belong to unions has fallen below 30 per cent. In the private sector, once the main bastion of organized labour, the proportion of union workers is down to 14 per cent. Those employees whose numbers are growing the fastest in Canada--the young, immigrants, private service sector workers--are the least unionized.

About union decline there is no doubt, and many theories have been advanced to explain it. One theory is that these trends reflect the irrelevance of unions in the new global economy Thanks to new technologies and management systems, workers in "post-hierarchical" organizations are now "empowered" on the job. Old antagonisms are said to be dissolving in a new spirit of cooperation. We're all bosses now. Academics talk about liberated, fulfilling work not as a radical goal but as capitalism's own project. From a pragmatic perspective, it is argued, this new cooperation reflects the realism of our times. In today's hypercompetitive economy, labour-management conflicts are luxuries we can't afford. Who needs unions?

However, despite all the talk about "post hierarchical" work, it is extraordinary how little evidence supports this view. When studies are done of workplaces where this kind of liberating work is supposed to exist, few find appreciable increases in workers' control. Typically, management control is stronger. Except for some categories of highly skilled workers (a minority) and some marginal accommodations to worker preferences, the old divide between those who design work and those who do it, between those who order and those who obey, has not changed much at all.

Perhaps this is why, outside human resource management textbooks, the language of workplace "empowerment" is heard less often these days. In its place, the more pragmatic language of "competitiveness" and "survival" has emerged as the dominant argument for union decline in the new global economy. "Free markets," a set of abstract forces out there, have their own in-built imperatives, we are warned. Non-unionism is at the top of the list.

This seems plausible on the surface. After all, the Canadian economy is highly dependent on international trade, especially with the United States. The United States has a far lower rate of unionization than Canada. Indeed, it has long had one of the lowest rates of unionization in the industrialized world. If low rates of unionization determine trade competitiveness, the United States should be close to the top. But it's not. While Canada has a healthy trade surplus, the United States has a huge trade deficit. Other highly unionized countries are also highly trade-competitive. For example, like Canada, Sweden is one of the most open economies in the world. Its rate of unionization is now more than 85 per cent of its labour force. And Sweden is highly competitive.

Contrary to popular perception, there is considerable evidence that unionized workplaces are often more competitive, more innovative and more productive. Unions also tend to produce other good effects. After controlling for the influence of education, experience and other factors, unionized workers in the United States enjoy an average 10 to 15 per cent higher level of wages than non-union workers. The union wage premium in Canada has been calculated to be even higher. Unions are also a major force for greater social equality. It's almost impossible to have decent health care, public pensions, public education and a host of other beneficial social policies without a strong labour movement. This is a key reason why the United States has consistently produced the highest level of economic inequality--including the highest poverty rate--among advanced industrial countries.

If union decline can't be explained on the grounds that work has been liberated or that unionized workplaces aren't competitive, let us look at another frequently heard explanation: people don't want to join unions.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Are Labour Unions Obsolete in the New Global Economy?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?